June 20, 2024

Democrats from two powerful committees are urging Joe Biden’s justice department to investigate the fossil fuel industry over its decades-long attempts to sow doubt about the climate crisis.

“We believe that there is adequate evidence that fossil fuel industry companies and trade associations may have violated one or more federal statutes,” the Senate budget committee chair, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the House oversight committee, wrote in a Wednesday letter to the attorney general, Merrick Garland.

The letter follows a multi-year joint investigation into the oil industry by the two committees, launched in 2021 by the House oversight committee, which was disbanded when Republicans took control of the chamber in 2022.

“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.” The Department of Justice declined to comment.

Late last month, the lawmakers released a report on the sector’s history of climate misinformation, 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.

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 obfuscating the dangers of gas.

In recent years, the report said, the sector has stopped denying the existence of climate change outright in favor of a more 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 Wednesday’s press conference.

The evidence, the lawmakers wrote, “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”.

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 focused on the investigation, she too said the US could reasonably take legal action against the oil industry.

“There is certainly an adequate legal foundation for litigation against this industry and individuals and as groups,” Eubanks testified at the hearing. “We should not waste any time wringing our hands.”

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,” said DiPaola, who supports the lawmakers’ efforts. “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.”

Last week, Raskin launched a House oversight investigation into nine oil companies after Donald Trump reportedly offered to dismantle Biden’s environmental rules for their benefit, and requested $1bn in contributions to his presidential campaign. 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.

Lawmakers have pushed the Department of Justice to investigate big oil for years. Last July, the 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.

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