A long-forgotten report sheds light on a high-stakes liability question.
Carroll Muffett began wondering in 2008 when the world’s biggest oil companies had first understood the science of climate change and their product’s role in causing it. A lawyer then working as a consultant to environmental groups, he started researching the question at night and on weekends, ordering decades-old reports, books, and magazines off Amazon and eBay, or from academic libraries.
It became a years-long quest, and as he pressed on, Muffett noticed one report kept coming up in the footnotes of the memos and papers he was poring through—a 1968 paper commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful fossil fuel trade group, and written by Elmer Robinson and Bob Robbins, scientists at the Stanford Research Institute, known as SRI. Muffett wasn’t sure what it said, but it was cited so often he knew there must be something big in it.
Then part of Stanford University, SRI wasn’t an ordinary department, but a contract research outfit that had been intertwined from its founding with oil and gas interests. The paper had been delivered privately to the petroleum institute, not published like typical academic work, and only a few copies had spilled into the public realm. Long since forgotten, they had been gathering dust in a handful of university libraries. Eventually, through an interlibrary loan, Muffett managed to get a hold of one. “There seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe,” the authors wrote in the 1968 paper…
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