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Biden takes his first climate actions. What about accountability?
Here’s what the president promised to do to put people over corporate polluters.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Hello, and welcome to the first week of climate action from the White House in over four years! *airhorns*
Since President Biden took office last Wednesday, we’ve seen some rapid-fire movement to address the climate crisis: he’s revoked the permit for Keystone XL, committed to banning new oil and gas drilling on federal land, rejoined the Paris Agreement, and more. (Big Oil, shocker, is not taking things well.)
But what will the president do when it comes to making polluters pay for causing and lying about the barrage of climate threats we’re now up against?
During his election campaign, President Biden promised to support efforts to ensure that communities aren’t left alone with the burden of climate costs while Big Oil gets off the hook. And on his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order that included language pledging to do just that.
Here are some of the ways the Biden administration promised to get behind communities fighting to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable — and what we’ll be watching for to make sure the new president sticks to his word.
Make the federal government an ally, not an enemy, of climate accountability.
The Trump administration’s Department of Justice actively worked with Big Oil to oppose climate litigation both behind the scenes and out in the open, and even recently argued on behalf of the industry in Baltimore’s climate liability case before the Supreme Court.
The Biden administration has a chance to do things differently. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland, who often ruled against polluters as an appeals court judge, could instruct the Department of Justice to file amicus briefs in support of climate liability lawsuits going forward. The Department could launch a federal investigation into Big Oil’s history of deception, as attorneys general in Connecticut, D.C., Delaware, Massachusetts, and Minnesota have done.
Direct the Department of Justice to hold polluters accountable — and pick the right person to lead the work.
On Wednesday, Biden signed a historic executive order that instructs the Department of Justice to consider creating a new office dedicated to upholding climate and environmental justice. In a plan released on the campaign trail, the president said that the new “Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the DOJ” would, among other priorities, “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters.” That should include backing the now two dozen communities that have sued fossil fuel giants like BP, Chevron, Exxon and Shell to hold them accountable for consumer fraud and the cost of climate damages.
Biden’s plan asserts that any meaningful environmental and energy policy “must also hold corporate polluters responsible for rampant pollution that creates the types of underlying conditions that are contributing to the disproportionate rates of illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 among Black, Latino, and Native Americans.” That’s something a new DOJ division could advance through its support of climate litigation, as multiple existing lawsuits seek to address the legacy of economic and public health impacts the fossil fuel industry has shifted onto communities of color — including prioritizing funds recovered from litigation towards those communities’ climate adaptation, resilience and recovery.
As far as a leader for this division, the administration will need to pick someone who isn’t afraid to take on the biggest players in climate deception and destruction — the opposite of, say, a lawyer that represents Shell…
Oppose legal immunity for the fossil fuel industry.
Big Oil and its friends in Congress have made a few passes at a liability waiver: that is, complete legal immunity from lawsuits that would hold the industry accountable for past, present and future harms. In case you’re not sure how far they’ll go, they even tried to sneak this get-out-of-jail-free card into a COVID-19 relief bill.
Back to square one for a sec here, folks: there is no reason in this warming world that Big Oil, or any other industry for that matter, should not have to face consequences for lying to the public. Communities need to be able to access the courts to recover damages when they’ve been knowingly wronged by industry, just as they always have.
The Biden administration must stick to the president’s word and protect communities’ rights to pursue justice through the courts.
What about Congress?
Congress has a part to play in exposing Big Oil’s decades-long campaigns of climate disinformation. In 2019, the Committee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held the first ever congressional hearing into Big Oil’s efforts to spread climate denial — and the resulting harm to people of color and vulnerable communities. With new Democratic Congressional majorities comes the opportunity to launch more committee hearings into Big Oil’s ongoing deception on climate — and to start holding them accountable.
We’ll just say this: we cannot wait for the many, many whiteboards.
ICYMI News Roundup
The Biden administration is planning to allocate as much as $10 billion to build infrastructure that would protect against future climate disasters. (That’s a drop in the bucket in terms of what we’ll need to survive the coming threat, btw. Shouldn’t those funds come from the multi-billion dollar companies that made their profits off of this crisis, rather than the communities they put in harm’s way?)