Big Oil Used Big Tobacco's Denial Playbook—But Will They Pay Same Price?

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Big Oil Used Big Tobacco's Denial Playbook—But Will They Pay Same Price?

The U.S. Justice Department has "discussed" taking civil legal action—as it did against tobacco products industry—against the fossil fuel industry

Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Will the fossil fuel industry, which misled the public for decades about the risks of climate change, eventually pay the steep price that Big Tobacco did after lying for decades about the health hazards of smoking?

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch this week acknowledged that the U.S. Justice Department has "discussed" taking civil legal action—as it did against tobacco companies—against the fossil fuel industry for its decades-long intentional suppression of climate science.

"It's high time that the Department of Justice investigate how these companies may have lied to the American people, their shareholders, and the federal government."
—Jamie Henn, 350.org

Lynch's comments came Wednesday, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Madam Attorney General, the similarities between the mischief of the tobacco industry pretending that the science of tobacco's dangers was unsettled and the fossil fuel industry pretending that the science of carbon emissions' danger is unsettled has been remarked on widely, particularly by those who study the climate denial apparatus that the fossil fuel industry has erected," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) during the hearing.

Noting that under President Bill Clinton, the Justice Department brought and won a multi-billion-dollar civil case against the tobacco industry, Whitehouse continued: "My question to you is, other than civil forfeitures and matters attendant to a criminal case, are there other circumstances in which a civil matter under the authority of the Department of Justice has been referred to the FBI?"

After thanking him for "raising the issue," Lynch responded: "This matter has been discussed. We have received information about it and have referred it to the FBI to consider whether or not it meets the criteria for which we could take action on. I'm not aware of a civil referral at this time."

As Common Dreams reported last week, the DOJ has already forwarded a request from two congressmen seeking a federal probe of ExxonMobil to the FBI's criminal division.

Watch the exchange below:

Since reporting last year revealed ExxonMobil's efforts to hide from the public the dangers of global warming and the role of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions in climate change—and since subsequent investigations have shown the strategy to be widespread throughout the industry—climate activists have compared the tactics to those employed by the tobacco industry.

"The fossil fuel industry has used Big Tobacco's playbook to block action on climate change for years," 350.org strategy and communications director Jamie Henn told Common Dreams in an email on Friday. "It's high time that the Department of Justice investigate how these companies may have lied to the American people, their shareholders, and the federal government."

Lynch's admission this week, combined with last week's announcement of the criminal referral, show that the case against fossil fuel producers is going mainstream, Henn said.

"#ExxonKnew may be the greatest corporate scandal in history," Henn said. "With multiple state attorneys general and the FBI now investigating the company, the case is clearly picking up momentum. Exxon will do everything it can to dodge these allegations. It's our job to make sure the spotlight stays pointed their way."

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