House Democrats urge DOJ to investigate Big Oil’s climate misinformation campaign

State and local governments have also taken legal action against the fossil fuel industry, seeking compensation for climate-related damages.

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Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and House Oversight and Accountability ranking member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) have taken a significant step in their years-long investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s alleged climate misinformation campaign. On Wednesday, they referred the matter to the Department of Justice (DOJ), requesting an investigation into whether major oil and gas companies and their trade associations have violated federal statutes through deceptive practices.

The climate crisis, driven largely by fossil fuel emissions, has reached a critical point. Over the decades, numerous investigations have suggested that major oil companies like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell have conducted campaigns to mislead the public about the environmental impacts of their products. These efforts have been compared to the tobacco industry’s notorious misinformation campaigns, which led to significant legal actions and accountability measures.

At a press conference on Capitol Hill, Whitehouse and Raskin emphasized the necessity of escalating their investigation to the DOJ. Whitehouse highlighted the limitations of their subpoena power in Congress, particularly given the current political dynamics. “To the extent the DOJ would be assisted by additional evidence, we’re perfectly happy to continue to look,” Whitehouse stated. Raskin echoed this sentiment, expressing his commitment to continuing the investigation should Democrats regain the majority in the House.

The referral to the DOJ includes thousands of pages of internal memos and emails uncovered by the House Oversight Committee. These documents reveal the extent to which oil companies have engaged in public relations campaigns to improve their “green” corporate image while privately acknowledging the environmental risks of their practices. Examples include partnerships with academics to promote the environmental advantages of natural gas and internal communications admitting failure to meet publicly pledged climate goals.

The American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have dismissed the allegations as politically motivated. Andrea Woods, spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, described the referral as “another unfounded political charade.” Neil Bradley of the Chamber of Commerce warned against the dangerous precedent of leveraging federal law enforcement for policy disputes, emphasizing the Chamber’s cooperation with the investigation.

The comparison to the tobacco industry’s misinformation campaign is particularly poignant. In the 1990s, the DOJ successfully sued major tobacco producers, resulting in a landmark 2006 federal court decision. Advocates argue that a similar approach could hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its role in perpetuating the climate crisis.

State and local governments have also taken legal action against the fossil fuel industry, seeking compensation for climate-related damages. Nearly two dozen lawsuits claim that companies misled consumers about the dangers of burning fossil fuels. These efforts are supported by advocacy groups like the Center for Climate Integrity, which has called for DOJ intervention since Attorney General Merrick Garland’s confirmation.

The DOJ’s next steps will involve reviewing the referral and deciding on further action.

“The truth about the fossil fuel industry’s role in perpetuating the climate crisis must come to light,” said Senator Whitehouse. “Our planet and future generations depend on it. We will not stop until justice is served and meaningful action is taken to protect our environment and our people.”

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