The Senate’s turn to investigate Big Oil?
For the future of congressional probes into Big Oil’s climate deception, keep an eye on Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
Through a historic, year-long investigation into Big Oil companies, House Democrats uncovered new evidence that the fossil fuel industry is misleading the public about its role in the climate crisis — but their work was stymied when Republicans regained control of the House.
Senate Democrats can now take up the fight against climate disinformation — and one of the most outspoken climate advocates in Congress has signaled he’s ready to lead the charge.
As the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told E&E News that he could use his new position to pick up where his colleagues in the House left off.
An impassioned critic of the fossil fuel industry, Whitehouse has spent years working to expose Big Oil’s dark money spending against climate action. He has called for civil RICO charges to be filed against fossil fuel companies for their conspiracies to deceive the public on climate, like they were against Big Tobacco. He’s also sponsoring a bill in the Senate for a windfall profits tax on Big Oil.
Now, Whitehouse says he wants to take the former House investigation of climate disinformation to the next level. “We are interested in trying to make sure their work is not lost and that the tasks that are left undone can still be pursued,” he told E&E in an interview. If that wasn’t enough of a hint, Whitehouse has hired staff members who worked for the House Oversight Committee to continue working on corporate oversight for the Senate Budget Committee.
A continued investigation could be an opportunity to obtain the internal documents that oil companies failed to produce (or completely redacted) last time around, in defiance of their subpoenas.
As the House investigation revealed, fossil fuel companies and their trade associations are still lying about their commitments to climate solutions while internally doubling down on production and investments in oil and gas. After announcing record annual profits in January, many oil majors have since walked back their clean energy pledges — proving once again the importance of the continuing quest to hold them accountable.
Whitehouse has already begun using his new power on the Budget Committee to highlight the massive costs of climate damages.
On Wednesday, Whitehouse held the second in a series of hearings exploring the mounting financial toll of climate change — this time focusing on the cost of flooding in coastal communities.
One of the witnesses to testify at the hearing was Matthew Eby, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit First Street Foundation. A study released by the group just this week found that nearly 30 million Americans’ homes and lives are now at risk from hurricane-force winds — a threat that is unevenly concentrated in communities of color.
Damages like these are just a fraction of the financial burden that communities now face as a result of Big Oil’s campaigns to deceive the public and delay action. More than two dozen lawsuits now seek to recover those costs from the companies that caused them.
In a separate hearing on Wednesday, Whitehouse pressed Attorney General Merrick Garland on whether the Department of Justice was considering similar legal efforts.
We’ll be closely following all these developments — in the Senate, Justice Department, and beyond.
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