Congressional Probe of Big Oil’s Climate Disinformation Could Boost Climate Accountability Litigation Already Underway
Democrats on the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform have wrapped up a historic investigation into Big Oil’s obstruction and obfuscation of climate and the clean energy transition and are handing the torch off for others to continue to the probe and to press for accountability. The investigation has uncovered extensive industry records such as internal emails that are likely to be highly relevant to the batch of climate lawsuits currently pending against major oil and gas companies such as Shell, Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil.
On December 9, 2022 the Committee released hundreds of pages of documents – part of the internal industry record gathered through subpoenas - and a 31-page memo summarizing some of the key findings. This latest release follows the Committee’s revelation in September of documents and initial findings that Committee leaders say show the industry is misleading the public. Overall the documents offer evidence and indications that the oil and gas industry is intent on continuing and expanding its extractive, climate-damaging business despite claims of becoming cleaner and pursuing credible climate action. Such claims, industry critics contend, amount to greenwashing, which some of the lawsuits point to in alleging that the industry’s deceptive conduct is ongoing.
“Even though Big Oil CEOs admitted to my Committee that their products are causing a climate emergency, today’s documents reveal that the industry has no real plans to clean up its act and is barreling ahead with plans to pump more dirty fuels for decades to come,” Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney said in a statement announcing the latest release of industry documents.
The nearly two-year investigation honed in on Big Oil’s role in disseminating climate disinformation and delaying or blocking meaningful climate action, and the gap between the industry’s public rhetoric and its internal discussion on climate and the energy business. While previous investigations by journalists, academics and others have revealed the industry’s historical conduct of undermining climate science and misleading the public, including through funding climate denial messaging, the House Oversight probe illuminates the industry’s ongoing efforts to deceive and engage in disinformation, particularly through hollow ‘net zero’ pledges and the promotion of technologies and alternative fuels like carbon capture and hydrogen or ‘renewable’ natural gas that preserve the role of fossil fuels under the guise of climate solutions.
“Internal emails and messaging guidance show that Big Oil’s climate pledges rely on unproven technology, accounting gimmicks and misleading language to hide the reality,” Rep. Ro Khanna, Chair of the Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on the Environment, said in a September statement. He is calling for further action to hold the industry accountable and told NBC News that the documents obtained by the Committee “will be handed over to those with more resources who can act on the information.”
There is speculation that Khanna could be referring to the Department of Justice. DOJ could open its own investigation into Big Oil, and the Department has investigatory tools that even Congress lacks. Given that Big Oil and its trade associations refused to fully cooperate with the Committee and its subpoenas, and heavily redacted many of the documents that were handed over, DOJ could play a key role in breaking through the industry’s obstruction.
“It’s time for the Department of Justice to engage and initiate actions to hold these bad faith polluters accountable for the catastrophic damage they have caused and the massive fraud they’ve perpetrated on the American people,” said Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, an advocacy group focused on climate accountability.
In the meantime, litigation is already underway seeking to hold fossil fuel entities accountable for climate-related harms and alleged fraudulent behavior, with around two dozen states and municipalities currently suing the industry in courts across the country. Lawyers for the government plaintiffs will surely be pouring over the Committee’s documents and potentially using them to make their case.
“This new batch of compromising evidence will help communities seeking justice through the courts and ensure that fossil fuel companies pay for the outsize role they have played in climate change and the suffering of communities,” Delta Merner, a lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement.