Richard Reavey says climate denial is eerily parallel to the tobacco industry’s old tactics, which hurt that business long-term
It’s one thing when environmentalists say that fossil fuel companies’ positions on climate change are similar to Big Tobacco’s past deflections about the hazards of smoking.
It’s another entirely when it’s done by a coal official, who says his industry should heed tobacco’s costly lessons.
That’s what Richard Reavey, vice president of public affairs of Cloud Peak Energy Inc., a major coal miner in the western United States, appears to have done on June 29, 2015, when he presented a 24-page slideshow at an industry conference organized by the Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute in Snowmass, Colo.
Reavey said one of his goals for the presentation, titled “SURVIVAL IS VICTORY: LESSONS FROM THE TOBACCO WARS,” was to encourage the industry to move past debating climate change and talk to critics of the industry about addressing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.
“The tobacco industry spent a lot of time in the bunker not listening to its critics, denying that there was any legitimate concern about smoking and health, and effectively trying to parse hairs and debate science,” Reavey said in an interview, “instead of trying to get to where they finally got to, which was that recognition that regulation was a legitimate goal of the public health community and something that the industry could live with.”
Coal companies should take a proactive strategy and talk about solutions, such as carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technology, Reavey said.
“There’s no good that comes from continuing to be in that kind of binary debate,” he said.
Reavey said the roughly 250 listeners to the June presentation had a swath of reactions. Some saw his suggestions as savvy and others glossed over it. Some in the crowd, “troglodytic types,” Reavey said, maintained that climate change is still debatable.
“I don’t really understand their point of view,” he said.
Before coming to Cloud Peak, Reavey worked in public relations for Philip Morris International Inc., the cigarette and tobacco company, when the Department of Justice was suing the industry in the 1990s.
“The parallels are remarkable and eerie,” one slide reads. It says tobacco was and coal is under attack from “well funded, well organized NGO opposition driving regulatory policy, media messaging, and shaping public opinion—often with poor/no science.”
Reavey said he wasn’t comparing behavior of coal and tobacco firms. “The analogy I drew was between the tactics of coal’s opponents and the opponents of tobacco,” he said.
Analogies between fossil fuel companies’ knowledge of climate change and cigarette-makers’ knowledge that smoking caused cancer are common in environmental circles.
Congressional Democrats held a briefing in June on the subject—an event titled, “Oil Is the New Tobacco” (ClimateWire, June 23). And some believe fossil fuel companies could be legally liable if they knew about climate change dangers but suppressed that information. That possibility is the crux of the investigations by New York and Massachusetts attorneys general into Exxon Mobil Corp.
The fossil fuel industry bristles when it’s compared to the tobacco industry. And some environmentalists are suspicious about Reavey’s motivations.
Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental advocacy group, said he came across the slideshow online last summer.
“It was unbelievable seeing it in writing,” Zimmerman said, adding that he’s familiar with the tobacco-to-oil analogy, but that the link to coal seems new.
Zimmerman seized on Reavey’s “poor/no science” line when reading the document.
“It’s maybe not an explicit denial, but it’s certainly an implicit denial,” Zimmerman said. “He’s still trying to undermine the science.”
Kert Davies, founder of the Climate Investigations Center and a former Greenpeace campaigner, read Reavey’s presentation, too.
“What he’s saying is ‘Coal, you can survive, look at tobacco,’” Davies said. “It’s a guy coming from tobacco sort of trying to teach coal,” he added. “Instructing them to go heavy on the clean coal, it buys you credibility, it buys you time.”