2021 in review: Climate accountability in Congress
This was the year that members of Congress stepped up efforts to reign in the fossil fuel industry.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
It was a big year for climate accountability as powerful members of Congress took Big Oil to task for its deception.
In 2021, as fossil fuel-driven disasters ravaged communities from coast to coast, Big Oil ramped up campaigns to greenwash its operations and obstruct government action on climate change. But some elected officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government weren’t about to let the industry’s deception go unchallenged.
We’re here with a roundup of top moments in 2021 when Congress took steps to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable.
U.S. Senators urged the Department of Justice to take action against fossil fuel companies.
In February, Senator Richard Blumenthal told then-nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Merrick Garland, that “nothing could be as important” as the Department of Justice taking action to hold major oil and gas companies accountable “for lying to the American public about the devastating effects of these products on climate change.”
Blumenthal was one of nine Senators this year to urge the U.S. Department of Justice to “reassess” its Trump-era support of fossil fuel companies in climate liability lawsuits and heed President Biden’s campaign promise to “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters.”
Disappointingly, Garland’s DOJ has still not weighed in on the issue. But it remains crucial for the Justice Department to make clear whether it stands with people or polluters as seven circuit courts will consider next steps for these cases in 2022.
Members of Congress introduced legislation to make polluters pay and end subsidies for fossil fuel companies.
While the courts continue to consider questions of liability, U.S. Senators proposed a new bill that would make polluters help fund the transition to clean energy sources. The plan, spearheaded by Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, would require fossil fuel majors to pay a fee based on the percentage of their global emissions.
Members of Congress also called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, which force taxpayers to prop up oil and gas companies to the tune of billions of dollars a year. In August, more than 50 members, led by Representatives Ro Khanna, Carolyn Maloney, and Ilhan Omar, sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pushing for a repeal of fossil fuel subsidies to be included in the Build Back Better Act.
The U.S. government hasn’t put an end to taxpayer-subsidized lifelines for Big Oil yet. In the meantime, Rep. Khanna and others have introduced legislation to repeal one of the more egregious tax giveaways still present in the current version of the House’s Build Back Better bill, which allows fossil fuel companies to receive a credit for using captured carbon to extract more oil.
Exxon's lobbyist got caught bragging about his meetings with senators.
Who could forget when (now-former) federal lobbyist for Exxon, Keith McCoy, was caught on tape spilling the tea about Exxon’s plots to stall government action on climate change and undermine climate science? McCoy was recorded in an undercover interview with Greenpeace UK, where he revealed a list of senators he met with regularly to push Exxon’s anti-regulatory agenda, referred to a carbon tax as a “good talking point” that would never actually happen, and explained how trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute serve a useful purpose as the industry’s “whipping boy.”
The tape confirmed Exxon’s decades-long legacy of deceiving the public about climate change, and McCoy was summoned to cooperate with the House Oversight and Reform Committee as part of its ongoing investigation into climate disinformation. Speaking of which...
Echoing the historic Big Tobacco hearings, members of Congress grilled oil executives at the first Congressional hearing on climate disinformation.
After oil industry CEOs refused to show up to testify at several other Congressional hearings, Rep. Khanna, chair of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, threatened to subpoena the executives to make sure they showed up for a historic hearing on the industry’s climate disinformation campaigns. “We need to expose all of this — we need to hold them accountable so that we can actually get climate legislation,” Khanna told us in an interview before the hearing.
Lo and behold, the Slippery Six — aka the executives of Exxon, Shell, BP America, Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — appeared virtually before Congress at the October 28 hearing. The executives faced tough questions from Khanna, House Oversight Chair Maloney, and a murderers’ row of committee members, including Representatives Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Katie Porter, and Jamie Raskin.
During the hearing, all six executives refused to commit to stop funding disinformation and efforts to oppose policies to address climate change. The executives also denied their companies’ involvement in spreading climate disinformation, and told a few other big whoppers under oath.
The Slippery Six got subpoenaed.
Following the hearing, Maloney issued subpoenas to all six executives for internal industry documents relating to the companies’ communications about climate science, funding of front groups, and intention to influence policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will be used to aid the committee’s investigation.
“This investigation is critical to informing legislative efforts to address these troubling business practices and to respond to the dire problem of climate change,” Maloney wrote in a corresponding memo. “The six entities have failed to produce key documents the Committee needs, despite the Committee’s efforts to obtain this information voluntarily.”
Next year, we expect Congress to broaden that investigation to include perhaps the biggest enabler in the climate disinformation crisis: social media companies.
This year’s developments in Congress were hugely important – but much more will be needed to ensure that Big Oil is truly held accountable for its lies and obstruction. We hope to see more come out of the ongoing House Oversight investigation – if the committee’s efforts are successful, the industry’s days of interference may be growing short.
P.S. We’ll be taking a break for the holidays but will be back with regular EXXONKNEWS starting in the New Year. Have a safe, happy and healthy one!
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