Exxon plant emitting smoke.

The ExxonMobil Baytown Olefins Plant is see after high winds and rains ripped through the region on Tuesday, January 24, 2023, in Baytown, Texas.

(Photo: Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

Senate Hearing Exposes Big Oil's 'Campaign of Deception and Distraction'

"Company officials will admit the terrifying reality of their business model behind closed doors but say something entirely different, false, and soothing to the public," Rep. Jamie Raskin said.

The U.S. Senate Budget Committee held a hearing Wednesday morning on the ongoing efforts of major fossil fuel companies and trade groups to delay climate action while deceptively painting themselves as part of the solution.

The hearing was based on an investigation launched by the House Oversight Committee in 2021 into the activities and communications of Exxon, BP, Shell, Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Chamber of Commerce. Both committees released the resulting report, Denial, Disinformation, and Doublespeak: Big Oil's Evolving Efforts to Avoid Accountability for Climate Change, on Tuesday.

"Our investigation uncovered compelling evidence of aggressive industry deceit which continues to this day," Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, said in his Senate testimony Wednesday. "The joint report and documents we discovered show how, time and again, the biggest oil and gas corporations say one thing for the purposes of public consumption but do something completely different to protect their profits. Company officials will admit the terrifying reality of their business model behind closed doors but say something entirely different, false, and soothing to the public."

"Policymakers and prosecutors must act swiftly to hold this rogue industry accountable for the climate chaos it has knowingly caused and bring its days of drill, deny, and delay to an end."

Raskin detailed key findings of the House investigation. The companies and trade groups:

  • Made public pledges to abide by the Paris agreement that they internally acknowledged were impossible;
  • Shifted from denying climate science to boosting natural gas and lying about being part of the solution;
  • Publicized investments in low-carbon technologies that they internally admitted were unlikely to work;
  • Depended on trade associations to promote their climate deceptions and lobby against effective climate action; and
  • Used partnerships with academic institutes to greenwash their image while also influencing research and gaining access to politicians.

"Big Oil's corruption is even more far-reaching than we feared," Cassidy DiPaola, spokesperson for the Make Polluters Pay campaign, told Common Dreams in response to the hearing. "This investigation exposes how these companies have not only lied to the public for decades, but infiltrated the halls of academia to peddle their climate disinformation."

Raskin gave several notable examples of corporate malfeasance from the House investigation. For example, while BP promotes its commitment to the Paris agreement on its website, it admitted in an email that "no one is committed to anything, other than to stay in the game." He also noted that ExxonMobil spent almost 50% of the amount it used for researching and developing algae as a biofuel between 2009 and 2023 on advertising its efforts.

Further, the companies did not cooperate with the investigation: They had to be subpoenaed to provide meaningful information, and they buried substantial documents in a "paper blizzard" of useless files like mass emails.

"If the companies had fully complied in good faith, who knows what else we might have uncovered?" Raskin asked.

In addition to Raskin, the Senate committee also heard testimony from Sharon Eubanks, the former director of the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Tobacco Litigation Team; Geoffrey Supran, an associate professor of environmental science and policy and the director of the University of Miami's Climate Accountability Lab; Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and managing director of the Energy, Growth, and Security Program at the International Tax Investment Center; and Michael Ratner, a specialist in energy policy at the Congressional Research Service.

"As a scholar of disinformation, I do not use the word 'lie' lightly," Supran said during his testimony. "But no other word adequately describes the oil industry's brazen efforts to mislead the public about its history of misleading the public."

Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media said the hearing was a "huge deal, not just because of what it's revealing about Big Oil's history of climate deception, but because it's laying the groundwork for Congress to finally hold the industry accountable and make polluters pay."

Both speakers at the hearing and senators outlined various ways the industry might be held accountable. Raskin highlighted the similarities between Big Oil's lies about its products' impact on climate and the tobacco industry's lies about its products' impact on human health.

"More than 20 years ago, the Department of Justice brought a precedent-setting case against the cigarette companies," Raskin said. "That case liberated our minds from the tyranny of Big Tobacco and reverberated across America and the world. As a result, the public learned about the massive disinformation campaign waged by the tobacco industry; the companies were ordered to cease and desist their propaganda and to start telling the truth to the public; and governments and people around the world used the facts uncovered to battle the tobacco industry effectively for financial restitution and defense of the public health."

The possibility that the DOJ could bring a similar case against oil companies was reinforced by Eubanks, who told the Senate: "There exists solid evidentiary basis to move forward with a request to the Department of Justice to investigate the actions of the fossil fuel industry. Just as the Department of Justice investigated the tobacco industry and ultimately filed a civil racketeering complaint against the industry, given the similarities of the fraudulent acts, and the government's successful case against tobacco, there is adequate foundation for building a case."

In response, Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said, "It is time for the Department of Justice to step in and defeat Big Oil's efforts to withhold the truth from the American people."

Another avenue for accountability was laid out by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who spoke up in favor of his Polluters Pay Climate Fund Act, which would use science attributing carbon dioxide and methane emissions to specific companies to then charge those companies for their climate pollution, putting the funds to work for a just transition to renewable energy.

"The idea is simple: The companies who pollute the most, should pay the most," Van Hollen said.

Climate and good governance groups supported the move toward accountability.

"Policymakers and prosecutors must act swiftly to hold this rogue industry accountable for the climate chaos it has knowingly caused and bring its days of drill, deny, and delay to an end," DiPaola told Common Dreams.

David Arkush, director of Public Citizen's Climate Program, said of fossil fuel deception, "It's criminal conduct, and our leaders and legal system should treat it as such."

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) pointed out that it is now possible to attribute rising temperatures, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and more frequent and extreme wildfires to the extraction and burning of oil, gas, and coal.

"This joint congressional investigation is an important step toward ending the fossil fuel industry's lies and obstruction of critical climate action," Kathy Mulvey, the accountability campaign director in UCS' Climate and Energy Program, said. "The internal industry documents released to the public and the testimony at this hearing add to the already considerable mountain of evidence illustrating misconduct by fossil fuel corporations and their surrogates. We urge policymakers and public prosecutors to move expeditiously to pursue accountability through every means at their disposal."

"We're getting to the point where it may be politically possible to actually take on the bad guys."

Reflecting on the hearing on his Substack, Bill McKibbenpointed to another important development it represented: a shift in the attitude of senior Democrats toward fossil gas, which both Raskin and Senate Budget Committee Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) noted was not as clean as the industry pretended. In the past, Democratic leaders including former President Barack Obama had promoted the idea that gas could be a bridge fuel because it emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned. But new evidence revealing how much methane its production leaks belies this claim.

"The fossil fuel industry desperately wants to lock in more dependence on fracked gas while they still can—that's why they reacted with such white-hot anger to the Biden administration's pause on permits for new [liquefied natural gas] export facilities earlier this year," McKibben wrote. "But the hope raised by today's hearing is that—if [President Joe] Biden wins reelection—that pause may become permanent, and the expansion of natural gas will finally be halted, recognized for the deep peril that it is."

While the Biden administration has so far focused on promoting renewable energy rather than reducing fossil fuel production, with measures such as the Inflation Reduction Act, the hearing showed that "we're getting to the point where it may be politically possible to actually take on the bad guys," McKibben said.

Indeed, Raskin did not mince works as he concluded his testimony. He referenced Jared Diamond's book Collapse and its assertion that one contribution to a civilization's demise is "the capture of political and social power by a narrow subset of society, which is committed to its own profit and power rather than the common good of the whole society and therefore refuses to take the steps necessary for collective survival."

"Big Oil's campaign of deception and distraction undermines the efforts we need to mobilize our people and government to save our climate, our habitat, and our species," Raskin said. "Unless the deception ends, and until the industry is held accountable, we are unlikely ever to be able to muster the national political will to effectively tackle climate change."

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