Congressional Dems Request DOJ Investigation into Big Oil’s Climate Deception

A new letter sent to the Attorney General highlights recent evidence, including internal Shell docs first reported by DeSmog.
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U.S. Department of Justice in Washington DC. Credit: Scott (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Citing “new evidence” of Big Oil firms’ advanced knowledge of climate risks and their actions to publicly conceal these risks, Democratic members of Congress are renewing calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate carbon majors for potential violations of federal law.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday, the 20 congressional signatories, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), compare Big Oil’s deceptive conduct to that of Big Tobacco. In 2006, major tobacco firms were convicted of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in litigation brought by the DOJ. The letter requests that the DOJ now open an investigation into ExxonMobil, Shell, and other oil majors to “determine whether they violated RICO, consumer protection, truth in advertising, public health, or other laws.”

The call for a federal investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s alleged climate deception follows new revelations further showing that Big Oil knew about the climate consequences of its products, yet actively worked to disseminate climate denial and block policy responses to protect profits.

As DeSmog reported in an investigation published March 31, oil major Shell sponsored climate research in the 1970s — years earlier than previously thought. Despite the stark warnings for society issued in internal reports, the company backed a series of industry publications that downplayed climate risks, emphasized uncertainties in climate science, and called for more fossil fuel use, particularly coal. The investigation was based on more than 200 documents uncovered and compiled by Dutch scholar and activist Vatan Hüzeir.   

One of those documents, an internal 1989 Shell scenarios report, discussed the potential for an unprecedented climate refugee crisis with global temperatures rising considerably beyond 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). The report warned: “Civilisation [sic] could prove a fragile thing.”

The congressional letter to DOJ cites this and several other Shell documents from the investigation, stating: “Despite these warnings, Shell continued to publicly promote the use of fossil fuels and participate in trade associations and other groups that pushed climate denial and opposed solutions.” As DeSmog’s reporting noted, Shell engaged in lobbying and trade associations in the 1990s and 2000s that did just that, such as the Global Climate Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute.     

The letter also points to two peer-reviewed studies indicating that Big Oil deceived and continues to deceive the public. One, published in January in the journal Science by researchers Geoffrey Supran, Stefan Rahmstorf, and Naomi Oreskes, demonstrated that Exxon’s climate modeling and global warming projections were exceptionally accurate, and explained that despite this skillful scientific understanding, the company’s public statements contradicted its internal knowledge of the climate risk. The other study, by Mei Li, Gregory Trencher, and Jusen Asuka and published in 2022 in the journal PLOS ONE, showed the disconnect between oil majors’ rhetoric and pledges around the low carbon transition and their actual actions and investments that prioritize their fossil fuel business.

“The available evidence that these companies lied — and continue to lie — to the public about their central role in exacerbating the climate crisis demands further investigation,” the letter contends. It alleges that this conduct may “constitute the most consequential deception campaign in history, with potentially existential consequences for our planet.”

The letter comes amidst alarming signals of climate breakdown across the country, from the hot-tub-temperature water off the Florida Keys, to the worst flooding Vermont has seen in nearly a century, to punishing heat in the Southwest sizzling sidewalks and causing severe burn injuries.

The Democratic members of Congress who signed onto the letter along with Sen. Blumenthal and Rep. Lieu include Reps. Katie Porter, Jared Huffman, Mark DeSaulnier, Kevin Mullin, and Nanette Díaz Barragán, all of California; Reps. Kim Schrier and Pramila Jayapal of Washington; Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida; Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Peter Welch of Vermont, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and Alex Padilla of California also signed on.

Just two weeks ago, during an online climate discussion, several members of Congress including Ocasio-Cortez, Whitehouse, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, called on the Department of Justice to take legal action against Big Oil, with Sanders suggesting they pay the Attorney General a visit to make their request in person. He and other senators have previously written to the DOJ and President Joe Biden requesting an investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s climate deception.

Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, which advocates for holding climate polluters accountable, said in an emailed statement that this deception amounts to the most “consequential fraud committed against the American people” ever. 

“Just as they did with the tobacco industry, the Department of Justice must exercise its unique power to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable and stop the lying,” Wiles said. “As long as Big Oil’s climate lies, both past and present, remain unchallenged by the DOJ, protecting the American public from the ravages of climate change will remain that much more difficult.”

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Dana is an environmental journalist focusing on climate change and climate accountability reporting. She writes regularly for DeSmog covering topics such as fossil fuel industry opposition to climate action, climate change lawsuits, greenwashing and false climate solutions, and clean transportation.

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