"Fossil Fuel Gives Way To Solar Power" by Gellscom is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Democrats Urge Department Of Justice Investigation Of Fossil Fuel Companies

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Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Jamie Raskin have sent a joint letter to the US Attorney General urging the Justice Department to initiate an investigation into the fossil fuel industry, which they claim has been committing illegal acts for decades. The Justice Department, headed by Merrick Garland, has pursued legal action against big tech companies and threatened this week to break up Ticketmaster for allegedly conspiring to create a monopoly in the sale of tickets to music concerts and sporting events. Everybody on the planet knows the fossil fuel companies have been lying through their teeth for decades, but no one at the highest levels of government have done a thing about it — until now.

The letter about the fossil fuel industry begins with these three paragraphs:

We are writing to share evidence of deceptive and misleading practices by ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell Oil, BP America, the American Petroleum Institute, and the US. Chamber of Commerce that was uncovered during a nearly three-year investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s history of making deceptive claims about its products, their effects on the climate, and its plans to reduce emissions and combat climate change.

The House Committee on Oversight and Accountability launched an investigation into Big Oil in September 2021 and was assisted by Majority staff of the Senate Committee on the Budget during the
118th Congress. Our investigation revealed how Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, API, and the Chamber worked in concert to mislead the public, policymakers, and investors with public promises to reduce emissions and meaningfully contribute to the transition away from oil and gas, while privately seeking to lock in continued fossil fuel production for decades into the future.

The investigation also demonstrated that the fossil fuel industry continues to knowingly obfuscate the dangers of natural gas, which it has billed as a clean and green fuel. This evidence, combined with the entities’ failure to comply fully with validly issued congressional subpoenas, suggests that further investigation by the executive branch is warranted.

Fossil Fuel Lies & Deceit

“Fossil fuel companies do not dispute any longer that they had known for more than 60 years that burning fossil fuels causes climate change,” Raskin told reporters on Wednesday. “And yet they’ve worked for decades to undermine public understanding of that fact.” Last month, the lawmakers released a report on the history of climate misinformation supported by the fossil fuel industry that was based on a tranche of subpoenaed documents from Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron, and the lobbying organizations the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce. That report also highlighted how the industry paid various colleges and universities to produce research favorable to its position.

These firms have worked together to mislead the public about the planet-warming nature of fossil fuels, the report said. Though they frequently made public commitments to slash their emissions, invest in carbon-free energy, and take on the climate crisis, they privately sought to defend their fossil fuel heavy business models, including by glossing over the dangers of methane gas. The report went on to say that in recent years the industry has stopped denying the existence of climate change outright and switched to a sophisticated strategy of “deception, disinformation, and doublespeak.”

“The goal is the same — deceive the public to stop real limits on fossil fuel production, and increase profits,” Whitehouse said at a press conference on May 22. The evidence “calls to mind the historic congressional investigation into deceptive practices of the tobacco industry and its trade associations, which led to investigations and litigation by several state attorneys general and the Department of Justice.”

Fossil Fuel Industry Follows The Big Tobacco Playbook

Sharon Eubanks, who served as lead counsel on behalf of the US in the successful 2005 federal lawsuit against big tobacco, has made the same comparison. At a Senate budget committee hearing earlier this month, she focused on the tobacco investigation, she said the US government could reasonably take legal action against the oil industry similar to the actions it took against the tobacco companies. “There is certainly an adequate legal foundation for litigation against this industry and individuals and as groups. We should not waste any time wringing our hands,” she said.

Cassidy DiPaola, communications director for the Make Polluters Pay campaign, which focuses on climate accountability, said a Justice Department investigation into the sector would probably require companies to turn over additional documents, and for executives to testify about their behavior and business models. It could also uncover new information about the role of “trade associations, public relations firms and other third parties” in the efforts to “shape public opinion on climate change,” she said. “The fossil fuel industry has operated under a cloud of suspicion for many years. A DoJ investigation could help clear the air and establish the facts about the industry’s climate deception. The public deserves to know the truth.”

The Trump Extortion Plot

Last week, Jamie Raskin launched a House oversight investigation into nine oil companies after Donald Trump reportedly offered to dismantle Biden’s environmental rules for their benefit in exchange for $1 billion in contributions to his presidential campaign. Senator Whitehouse has also expressed interest in formally investigating the meeting. “Trump’s offer of a blatant quid pro quo to oil executives is practically an invitation to ask questions about big oil’s political corruption and manipulation,” he said last week.

Once in office, he told the assembled executives, he would immediately reverse dozens of President Biden’s environmental rules and policies and stop new ones from being enacted, according to people with knowledge of the meeting. Giving $1 billion would be a “deal” for the companies, Trump said, because of the taxation and regulation they would avoid. Trump also told those in attendance he would start auctioning off more leases for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, a priority that several of the executives raised. He railed against wind power and he said he would reverse the restrictions on drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. “You’ve been waiting on a permit for five years. You’ll get it on Day One,” Trump promised.

The Takeaway

Lawmakers have pushed the Department of Justice to investigate big oil for years. Last July, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and California Representative Ted Lieu, both Democrats, sent a plea to the agency, signed by 20 members of Congress. Days later, the independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sent another missive to Garland, calling for the department to not only launch an investigation, but also bring lawsuits against the industry.

If ever there was a need for the full power of the federal government to be focused on the misdeeds of the oil and gas industry, it is now. Everyone on Earth knows they have been lying for years. The earliest reports from their own scientists about the harm using their products would do to the environment first arose in the 1950s. But most people do not realize the extent to which these companies have taken over the political process in the US, with tactics pioneered by Charles Koch.

Part of their scheming has included crawling into bed with any groups who would help officials loyal to those industries get elected. That resulted in an embrace of religious conservatives and anti-abortion groups. Fossil fuel companies have no intrinsic interest in  religion but they will do anything to protect their political power, which is why we have at least two religious wingnuts currently on the US Supreme Court.

The tentacles of the fossil fuel industry reach into every corner of American life, choking off any threat to their quest for profits. The one thing that the law, until now, has overlooked is the fact that corporations are creatures of the sovereign entities who create them. Those sovereigns reserve the right to revoke their social license if they abuse it, something the oil and gas industry has done in the most grotesque manner for almost a century. Rather than prosecuting them, simply disincorporate them if they act in ways that are harmful to society. How’s that for a novel solution?


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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