Discover more from ExxonKnews
Oceans are heating up — just as Big Oil predicted
As record-high ocean temperatures fuel Hurricane Idalia, let’s remember the fossil fuel industry knew decades ago that their products would harm the ocean’s health.
This issue of ExxonKnews was written by Isabella Garcia, staff writer at the Center for Climate Integrity. Isabella was formerly a journalist and news editor in the Pacific Northwest before joining CCI earlier this year.
As Hurricane Idalia rips through the Southeast — first making landfall in Florida at 125 miles per hour and leaving a path of destruction in its wake — its strength is being fueled by unusually high ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. As of Thursday morning, three people have been killed and hundreds of thousands of residents in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina are without power while others are returning to their partially destroyed homes to evaluate the damage.
It’s just one recent example of how severely climate change is altering the health of our oceans: mass coral reef die off is spreading across the globe, and more than 9,000 emperor penguins likely died in a “catastrophic breeding failure” after thinning Antarctic ice sheets broke around several breeding sites. While some scientists have called this rapid ocean warming “astonishing,” it’s no surprise to the fossil fuel industry.
Major oil and gas companies knew decades ago their products would cause irreversible harm to our oceans, including volatile temperatures, declining marine habitat, and melting polar ice caps.
In 1968, a report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute (API) — the largest U.S. trade association for the oil and gas industry — predicted that, if fossil fuel use continued as planned, “a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans” and more. Fast forward to today: Antarctic ice melt has increased six-fold over the past 30 years, contributing significantly to sea level rise, while ocean temperatures throughout the world are reaching record breaking levels.
Despite internal industry documents showing that oil executives knew decades ago just how damaging their products would be to our ocean and marine life, fossil fuel companies chose to conceal that information from the public. For years, even as the industry prepared its own infrastructure to withstand sea level rise, companies led a public disinformation campaign to cast doubt on climate science — all while expanding their fossil fuel production and raking in exorbitant profits.
Take Shell’s 1988 discovery that climate change could lead to a rise in ocean temperatures and ocean acidification and warranted “further consideration and study.” This year, ocean temperatures in Florida hovered in the mid-90 degrees multiple times in July, creating a “massive bleaching event” in several coral reefs which could lead to permanent coral loss.
“We did not expect to see this amount of bleaching occurring this early in the season,” Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary researcher Katey Lesneski told PBS News Hour. “These predictions seem to be changing by the day based on just how rampant this widespread heat wave is here, as well as the prolonged ocean temperatures.”
Those warm waters are also intensifying Hurricane Idalia, which rapidly gained strength as it moved through the unusually warm Gulf of Mexico before slamming into Florida’s Keaton Beach Wednesday. According to some hurricane experts, Idalia could set records for how quickly the storm intensified because of the water temperatures.
In that same 1988 document, Shell researchers list sea level rise as a key implication of the changing climate, noting that “more than 30% of the world’s population live within a 50-kilometre area adjoining oceans and seas, some even below sea levels.” The report warns that these communities, such as Bangladesh, the U.S. East Coast, and China, might be “inundated” with rising sea levels and have to be “abandoned.” Just earlier this year — nearly 40 years after Shell’s report — the United Nations chief said that for 900 million people in low-lying areas of India, China, and several other coastal communities, anticipated sea level rise is like a “death sentence.” In 2022, flooding from rising sea levels killed more than 100 people in Bangladesh and displaced hundreds of thousands more, disrupting food supplies and land availability.
Exxon researchers predicted in 1979 that the Arctic would be ice-free for six months of the year if carbon dioxide levels doubled compared to 1860. A 2023 study revealed that the Arctic could experience its first ice-free summer by 2030 — about a decade earlier than climate models originally predicted.
These shifts in ocean conditions are altering habitats for all kinds of marine life — another consequence of ocean destruction predicted by Shell in 1988. According to Shell researchers, climate change could lead to a loss of habitats like “shallow seas, lagoons, bays and estuaries” which would mean a “loss of extremely highly productive and diverse areas.” Not only has that prediction come true — for example, the significant loss of wetlands in Louisiana — but the climate crisis has also threatened habitats across the biosphere.
Some communities are using evidence of oil companies’ knowledge of ocean climate damages in an effort to hold the industry accountable for their deception. In a landmark lawsuit, 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico sued major oil companies in 2022 for violating fraud and racketeering laws, specifically citing the industry’s role in catalyzing the scale of death and devastation caused by Hurricane Maria — another storm fueled by warming ocean waters.
"The [fossil fuel companies] knew that their acts, omissions, and deceit of the consumers… would, and did, prevent the Municipalities of Puerto Rico and their citizens from having the knowledge that they needed to adequately prepare for the “hotter and wetter” storms that pummeled the Island in 2017,” the lawsuit argues.
In 2018, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations — the largest commercial fishermen’s association on the West Coast — sued 30 oil companies for fueling the climate crisis, which has warmed the waters, shortened crabbing season, and led to economic losses for the industry.
“The world’s oceans are changing, and commercial fishermen and -women, their businesses, their communities, and their families are paying the price,” the lawsuit states. “These changes threaten both the productivity of commercial fisheries and safety of commercially harvested seafood products. In so doing, they also threaten those that rely on ocean fisheries and ecosystems for their livelihoods, by rendering it at times impossible to ply their trade.”
On September 14, a U.S. district judge will hear arguments on whether the fishermen’s association’s case should move forward in state court, where it was originally filed. The same judge previously ruled in favor of California communities seeking to hold oil companies accountable through state courts in similar cases. Soon, Big Oil may be required to face evidence of their deception in court.