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Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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Comparing Big Oil to Big Tobacco is Ludicrous

  • Oil serves as the lifeblood of the global economy, powering transportation, industry, and commerce.
  • The economic benefits of oil are complexly intertwined with its environmental costs, requiring a nuanced approach to addressing the issue.
  • Calls for legal action against oil companies are misguided, as there is no affordable, scalable alternative to oil currently available.
Gasoline pump

Recently the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing to discuss a recent report that accused “Big Oil” of a “decades-long deception campaign” to misinform the public about the dangers of climate change.

Sharon Eubanks, a former federal litigator, proposed that the government should pursue legal action against the petroleum industry, drawing parallels to the litigation against Big Tobacco in the past. Eubanks, who previously led the racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry, argued that major oil and gas companies have engaged in misleading and endangering practices like those of the tobacco industry. She asserted that these matters should be resolved through legal proceedings in court.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Eubanks, “If you were the attorney general of the United States, would you prosecute in that direction?” She responded that she would, without question.

There is a lot that these hearings get wrong, but here is the most fundamental problem. If Big Tobacco disappeared from the planet, there would be no meaningful or lasting negative impact on society. On the contrary, tobacco is responsible for a lot of healthcare issues and subsequent costs in society.

Now contrast that with Big Oil disappearing from the planet. Tobacco may not have impacted you in the past week, but oil almost certainly did. Odds are that you transported yourself using oil. That’s especially true if you were on an airplane. If you bought goods at a store, they were almost certainly brought there using oil. Related: Memorial Day Travel Expected to Near Record High

The entire world derives enormous economic benefits from consuming oil every day. If that consumption suddenly ceased, the global economy would immediately grind to a halt. Supply chains would stop working, and food would stop arriving in the grocery stores. Society would collapse.

It is undoubtedly true that there are negatives associated with oil consumption. But these hearings only ever focus on the negatives. Nothing shows this more clearly than comparing oil to tobacco. Too many of these politicians act as if oil provides no meaningful benefit to society, and they never try to compare the economic benefits of oil with the environmental costs.

Remember when Bernie Sanders ran for president? His campaign ran on oil. It wasn’t biofuel that was being put in the airplanes he used to crisscross the country. That brings to mind the question of how these politicians can justify the seeming hypocrisy of consuming oil every day, while complaining about the hazards of the product they consume.

I believe this seeming disconnect is because they believe that we would have had green alternatives by now if not for the climate change obfuscation of the oil companies. Thus, they reason it isn’t their fault, it’s the fault of the oil companies.

There’s no evidence this is the case. Even today, after decades of research into alternatives, there is no affordable, scalable alternative that can replace petroleum. Every country from Iceland to Kenya to Brazil to Vietnam runs on oil. Further, no developed economy in the world has figured out a way to run its economy without oil.

So, these politicians — and indeed many people — believe in something for which there is no evidence.

With calls for legal action echoing those against Big Tobacco, the question of accountability looms large. However, amidst the fervor of these discussions, it’s crucial to consider the indispensable role of oil in modern society. Unlike tobacco, which primarily poses health risks, oil serves as the lifeblood of the global economy, powering transportation, industry, and commerce.


While acknowledging the environmental challenges associated with oil consumption, it’s essential to recognize the complex interplay between its economic benefits and environmental costs. As debates persist, it’s imperative to approach the issue with nuance, acknowledging the multifaceted impacts of oil while pursuing more sustainable solutions for the future.

By Robert Rapier

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Leave a comment
  • Jerry Fasse on May 15 2024 said:
    So the standard is if something is important enough we will excuse their leaders from accountability? I don't like that idea. Oil companies have adopted many of the tactics of Big Tobacco to deny, delay, and sow confusion about the harm caused by their products. And like Tobacco this is an organized campaign, largely derived from their own expert understanding of the negative externalities of their business. That behavior is what should be held to account, regardless of how important their commodity may be to the economy or our energy security.
  • Liquidus Flowsus on May 16 2024 said:
    Overall, the article is well-written and makes a compelling argument. Here are some specific strengths and weaknesses:


    The article starts with a clear and engaging summary of the Senate hearing and the proposed legal action against Big Oil.

    There's a strong analogy between Big Tobacco and Big Oil, highlighting the differences in the impact of each industry on society.

    A nuanced view of the issue is provided, acknowledging both the environmental costs and the economic benefits of oil consumption.


    There could be more specific examples or data to support claims about the economic benefits of oil consumption. While it's true that oil is essential for transportation and commerce, providing some concrete data would make the argument more convincing.

    The criticism of politicians who consume oil while complaining about its hazards may be too personal or partisan, though
    while it's understandable to question the hypocrisy of some politicians, it's not directly relevant to the issue at hand.

    There could have been more discussion about alternative energy sources and their potential to replace oil. While it's true that there are currently no affordable, scalable alternatives, ares around potential solutions and progress being made in this area could have been explored.

    The conclusion could be more concise and focused on the main argument. The finale, "As debates persist, it’s imperative to approach the issue with nuance, acknowledging the multifaceted impacts of oil while pursuing more sustainable solutions for the future," feels a bit tacked on and could be integrated more seamlessly into the rest of the article.

    Overall, a compelling argument is made about the need for nuance in discussing the role of oil in society. With some additional support and clarity, it could be even more effective in persuading us.

Leave a comment

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