Merrick Garland

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who leads the Department of Justice, has been asked to investigate Big Oil for practices of disinformation, following a congressional probe.

(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

'Undeniable Wrongdoing': Congressional Democrats Ask DOJ to Investigate Big Oil

Companies made "public promises to reduce emissions... while privately seeking to lock in continued fossil fuel production for decades into the future," wrote two Democratic leaders who referred the case.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Jamie Raskin formally called on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the fossil fuel industry for propagating disinformation about climate change and obstructing a green transition on Wednesday, following the release of a report by their committees on April 30.

The report, based on a three-year investigation, found that the industry has deceived the public about climate change since at least the 1960s, with its strategy shifting over the decades from outright denial to disinformation and doublespeak. It was authored by the Senate Committee on the Budget, chaired by Whitehouse (D-R.I.) , and the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability Democrats, led by Raskin (D-Md.).

Whitehouse's committee held a hearing on May 1 in which Raskin along with several scientists and legal experts spoke in remarkably clear terms about the industry's culpability, drawing parallels to Big Tobacco's past disinformation and lies about its products.

In the letter to Garland, the two lawmakers have taken the next step, calling for legal accountability for the wrongdoing they uncovered:

Our investigation revealed how [fossil fuel companies and lobby groups] worked in concert to mislead the public, policymakers, and investors with public promises to reduce emissions and meaningfully contribute to the transition away from oil and gas, while privately seeking to lock in continued fossil fuel production for decades into the future. The investigation also demonstrated that the fossil fuel industry continues to knowingly obfuscate the dangers of natural gas, which it has billed as a clean and green fuel.

Public interest groups called for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to heed the call from Whitehouse and Raskin, which they cited as an important step.

"This is the most substantive and consequential call yet for the Justice Department to take action against Big Oil companies for their ongoing and catastrophic campaign of lies," Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a statement. "In a nation of laws, powerful corporations must not be allowed to lie to the public with impunity—especially when those lies cause great harm to public health and safety."

The attorneys general of at least eight states have already filed suits against Big Oil for deceiving the public about climate science and the industry's role in perpetuating climate change, and Michigan's attorney general recently announced that the state would also do so; many municipalities around the country have filed similar suits.

"As states and communities across the country are fighting in court to hold fossil fuel companies accountable, it's time for the nation's top law enforcement agency to stand up for the American people and bring this renegade industry to justice," Wiles said.

Similarly, David Arkush, director of Public Citizen's Climate Program, called for the DOJ to take up the investigation as a way of "standing up to the powerful actors that are endangering communities nationwide."

The joint investigation revealed "shocking and undeniable wrongdoing" by the fossil fuel industry, Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director in the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement.

"There's now a mountain of evidence confirming the fossil fuel industry's ongoing efforts to defraud the public, manipulate our political system, delay the necessary transition to clean energy, and risk shareholder investments in the name of power and profits," Mulvey said. Referring to government cases against Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, Mulvey said that "similar action is warranted in the face of the fossil fuel industry-driven climate crisis," arguing that the industry must be required to "stop lying and correct past lies."

Despite the climate crisis, the industry is booming. In 2023, the combined profits of ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP—four of the companies under investigation in the congressional probe—were over $100 billion. In the same year, the U.S. experienced the most disasters causing $1 billion or more in damage, Mulvey noted.

Whitehouse and Raskin also named one more reason that Garland should investigate fossil fuel companies: They obstructed the congressional investigation. None of the six entities under investigation—the four aforementioned companies, as well as the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—fully complied with the committees' work, despite congressional subpoenas, according to Whitehouse and Raskin. They flouted "long-standing congressional practices and norms for investigations," the letter to Garland states.

This lack of full disclosure has lead to questions about what wrongdoing has not yet come to light.

"Strong evidence already in the public domain suggests that Big Oil has likely violated a number of federal laws," Arkush of Public Citizen said. "And yet, as this letter makes clear, there is ample reason to think the industry is hiding even worse wrongdoing."

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