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Study shows growing ocean damage as protection bills languish

Finds most ocean acidification, which harms marine life and coastal economies, has been triggered by 88 companies, including Exxon Mobil

A slide shows growing acidification of the world’s oceans during a presentation of data at a climate conference in Spain earlier this month.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A slide shows growing acidification of the world’s oceans during a presentation of data at a climate conference in Spain earlier this month.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

As lawmakers push legislation to protect the nation’s coastal waters, scientists are placing much of the blame for degrading ocean conditions on emissions from large energy companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., which was cleared Tuesday in a long-running climate court case.

A study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters found that carbon emissions from the largest energy and cement companies are responsible for more than half of a damaging side effect: increasing acidity in the planet’s oceans, which harms marine life and coastal economies.

The findings will likely join Democrats’ arguments as they push for reduced fossil fuel use and demand accountability from the largest greenhouse gas emitters, though their legislation remains stalled in the Senate.

“The more we drill, the more damage we do to our oceans and coastlines, and it’s time fossil fuel corporations admitted it,” House Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, said. “The future of our energy supply can’t rely on producing oil and gas indefinitely, and if Exxon, Chevron and BP don’t have a better business model in mind, they’re not going to be part of that future.”

[Pelosi: Climate panel is not just ‘an academic endeavor’]

The researchers said that more than half of the ocean acidification that occurred between 1880 and 2015 was due to carbon emissions since 1965 from the 88 largest oil, gas, coal and cement producers.

“We’ve known for several decades that burning fossil fuels is by far the largest driver of ocean acidification, but we weren’t able to track how much any one fossil fuel company contributed to the problem, and in what way,” Rachel Licker, lead author of the study and senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a news release. “Scientists can now quantify how much more acidic the ocean has become as a result of each fossil fuel company’s products.”


Democratic lawmakers and a few Republicans are increasingly concerned about ocean acidification and the risks to underwater life and coastal economies.

Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., D-Va., said the new study confirms that “fossil fuels and carbon pollution fueled a climate crisis which is doing lasting damage” to the environment and economy right now.

“Ocean acidification is a serious problem which threatens coral reefs, key species, and also jobs in the United States and around the world,” Beyer, who is co-chair of the New Democrat Coalition Climate Change Task Force, said. “That damage is a legacy of environmental injustice, with wealthier consumers and large corporations contributing to problems which disproportionately harm poorer countries and communities.”

The study comes a day after the House passed a bill to address climate-related coastal issues for native American communities. The bill includes an amendment by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., that would allow them to qualify for Department of Commerce grants to address acidification..  

“The climate crisis continues to threaten our ocean, and we must equip our coastal communities with the information necessary to respond to ocean acidification,” Bonamici said Tuesday.  

The House earlier this year passed a raft of bipartisan bills aimed at addressing ocean acidification and increasing funding for research into the problem. In June, the House passed a bill introduced by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash, that would help fight ocean acidification through increased research, monitoring and prize competitions. The House also passed with bipartisan support other ocean acidification bills including legislation  by Bonamici, which would reauthorize the ocean acidification programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Science Foundation and expand federal research and monitoring of the effects of coastal acidification.  

‘Legislative graveyard’

Another House-passed bill would task NOAA with assessing which communities are most vulnerable to the effects of ocean acidification and to use the results to inform federal action.  And Maine Democrat Rep. Chellie Pingree’s bill would direct the National Academies of Science to study the impacts from ocean acidification in estuaries.

All of these bills have been sent to the Senate where they are among multiple pieces of legislation sitting in what Democrats have described as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “legislative graveyard.”

Because of increased reliance on fossil fuels, especially in industrialized nations, the oceans absorb some of the carbon dioxide emitted, which makes the waters more acidic. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 43 percent since the industrial revolution due to the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil, along with land use change. While the oceans absorbing that carbon dioxide help reduce its concentrations, it comes at a cost, including making it harder for marine species to thrive, damaging coral reefs and hurting seafood and other coastal economies.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says the oil and gas industry was aware of the climate risks of their products since at least the mid-1960s, and companies launched “a multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign to convince the public that climate science was too uncertain to warrant action.”

That assertion has dogged ExxonMobil for several years at it battles court cases accusing it of hiding what it knew of its contribution to climate change risks and deceiving investors about the risks.

On Tuesday, a court exonerated Exxon in a case in which the oil giant was accused by the state of New York of deliberately concealing climate change risks to investors. The company is still battling other climate court cases. A spokesperson for the company did not immediately provide comment on the study.

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