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Democrats beg DOJ to investigate Big Oil’s climate deception
Lawmakers are once again asking the U.S. Department of Justice to look deeper into “the most consequential deception campaign in history."
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Coral reefs are dying at unprecedented rates off the coast of Florida, where the ocean is freakishly hot. A crucial ocean current that affects weather around the world is trending toward collapse as soon as 2025, a new study suggests. Another new scientific analysis deemed this month’s killer heat waves “virtually impossible” if not for fossil fuel driven climate change.
These weren’t inevitable tragedies — they’re the result of the oil and gas industry’s ongoing campaigns to downplay the dangers of fossil fuels, robbing us of precious decades to address the climate crisis. As states and municipalities fight to put Big Oil companies on trial for their fraud and deception, there is now growing pressure for the U.S. Department of Justice — the nation’s biggest public law firm — to follow suit.
Members of Congress have been pleading for the DOJ to investigate Exxon, Shell, and other oil giants for nearly a decade: since InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times first broke the “Exxon Knew” story in 2015, Democratic lawmakers have sent five letters asking U.S. attorneys general to determine whether the companies broke federal law.
During Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing in 2021, Senator Richard Blumenthal told the soon to be attorney general that “nothing could be so important” as the DOJ taking action to hold fossil fuel companies accountable “for lying to the American public about the devastating effects of these products on climate change.” As Garland himself said back then, it is the Justice Department’s responsibility to protect Americans from fraud.
Now, calls for the Department of Justice to investigate the polluters at the helm of climate disinformation are louder than ever.
On Tuesday evening, eight years after Representative Ted Lieu first asked the DOJ to take action, he and Senator Blumenthal led more than a dozen U.S. representatives and senators in a letter that once again urged Garland to “investigate Shell, ExxonMobil, and potentially other fossil fuel companies to determine whether their massive and coordinated campaigns of deception violated federal laws and constituted a corrupt enterprise.”
The letter cites the ever-expanding evidence of the companies’ early and detailed knowledge of climate change and their subsequent efforts to publicly undermine the science. It points to a new trove of internal Shell documents and a peer-reviewed analysis of Exxon’s climate modeling, which were both published this year.
“The available evidence that these companies lied — and continue to lie — to the public about their central role in exacerbating the climate crisis demands further investigation,” the lawmakers wrote. “If the allegations against ExxonMobil, Shell, and other major fossil fuel companies are true, their coordinated efforts to deceive Americans constitute the most consequential deception campaign in history, with potentially existential consequences for our planet.”
Tuesday’s letter was co-signed by representatives Porter, Jayapal, Huffman, DeSaulnier, Tlaib, Castor, Schrier, Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, Mullin, and Díaz Barragán, and Senators Markey, Whitehouse, Welch, Hirono, Fetterman, and Padilla. The request follows a years-long investigation into Big Oil’s disinformation campaigns led by the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which produced a plethora of damning internal company documents last year and forced the heads of Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP America to testify under oath in 2021.
The Department of Justice has taken on corporate deception before.
A potential DOJ investigation could look into whether fossil fuel giants conspired together behind front groups and trade associations to deceive the public about the dangers their products would cause. As the letter points out, DOJ similarly investigated — and successfully sued — the tobacco industry decades ago.
The tobacco industry relied on many of the same law and PR firms, dark money groups, and individuals also tapped by Big Oil to spread disinformation about their products. DOJ’s lawsuit forced tobacco companies to stop lying and publish corrective statements about the hazards of smoking.
As Sharon Eubanks, the DOJ’s lead lawyer in its RICO case against Big Tobacco, wrote in the Guardian about the growing legal threat to Big Oil last year, “The cases against fossil fuel companies are approaching a similar critical mass today.” Cases in Puerto Rico and New Jersey are now bringing similar racketeering charges against Exxon and other oil giants for the devastating consequences of their coordinated deception.
Earlier this month, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referenced the oil industry’s well-documented legacy of climate deception during a webinar on recent climate disasters and called for the federal government to take action.
“I would love to see the Department of Justice bring exactly the kind of litigation [against the fossil fuel industry] that it won against the tobacco industry for lying about the dangers associated with its product,” said Whitehouse. On the campaign trail in 2020, President Biden himself said that Big Oil “is an industry we should be able to sue. We should go after, just like we did the drug companies, just like we did with the tobacco companies.”
DOJ supported state and local lawsuits against Big Oil. Could we see more action soon?
Earlier this year, DOJ finally filed a brief in support of the communities bringing climate liability suits — a move that came after years of calls from senators and state attorneys general to fulfill the Biden administration’s pledge to “strategically support” states and municipalities’ lawsuits against climate polluters.
Should a potential DOJ investigation into the oil giants’ malfeasance yield evidence of illegal activities, a lawsuit could follow. “If the Biden DOJ would give an honest look at that kind of litigation against the lies of the fossil fuel industry, that could be a real turnaround,” Whitehouse said. “There’s lots of other litigation going on out there, but the DOJ is the big one, and I hope that they make the decision to at least give such a lawsuit an honest look.”
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