Climate Activists Mark 10 Years Since Hurricane Sandy In New York

Climate activists block an escalator and throw coal on the ground at the New York headquarters of the financial investment firm BlackRock on October 26, 2022 in New York City. The activists, who have been holding protests to mark 10 years sine Hurricane Sandy, were protesting the company's investment in fossil fuels

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Big Oil Needs to Be Held Accountable for Its Climate Deception

Ultimately, the future of accountability for the fossil fuel industry is up to us.

Oil companies knew since the 1950s that their product was causing catastrophic climate damage. The industry never supported the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, despite their many public statements to the contrary. Companies like BP and Shell understood the dangers of methane emissions from ‘natural’ gas, but marketed it as a clean energy solution anyways. Over the last decade, the industry has spent over $700 million on university research to promote a lasting role for fossil fuels in our energy future. ExxonMobil’s security chief is “tracking” climate activists’ whereabouts, while the American Petroleum Institute monitors their social media feeds.

Those are just some of the revelations from a 65-page report released by the Senate Budget committee ahead of a hearing on Wednesday into Big Oil disinformation. The report is the culmination of a three-year investigation into the industry’s “denial, disinformation, and doublespeak,” an inquiry which the industry tried to stymie at nearly every turn, withholding information, resisting subpoenas, and then swamping the committee with over 100,000 pages of meaningless documents.

Despite the industry’s efforts, the report is a damning portrayal of Big Oil’s decades-long crusade to simultaneously block meaningful climate action while extracting more government support for false solutions like ‘natural’ gas (aka methane) and carbon capture and sequestration. Over the course of thousands of emails, top executives, lobbyists, and PR advisors debate how to lobby against important regulations, greenwash the industry’s reputation, shape university research agendas, and mislead the public about the threat of fossil fuels.

The fossil fuel industry isn’t going to give it up willingly. Which means that the next phase of the effort to hold Big Oil accountable is going to have to pursue the industry with sharper teeth.

And that’s all from the content they were willing to share, which begs the question: what did they decide to redact? If these are the documents the industry felt best represent their harmless day-to-day operations, what sorts of bombshells are they covering up? The committee’s report reads like the flickering of a flashlight in a dark basement, giving us a snapshot of the subterranean world of Big Oil deception, while raising the question, what else hides in these dark corners?

Whatever it is, the fossil fuel industry isn’t going to give it up willingly. Which means that the next phase of the effort to hold Big Oil accountable is going to have to pursue the industry with sharper teeth.

At the federal level, that means getting the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into Big Oil disinformation. Twenty members of Congress have already sent a letter to DOJ urging such an investigation and after this week’s hearing and report, pressure will only grow. What’s needed now is for President Biden and the White House to throw their weight behind the idea. Congress can also pay their part by pursuing a more aggressive “make polluters pay” agenda, taking up bills like a windfall profits tax, which would go after Big Oil profiteering, and the Polluter Pays Climate Fund, which would make the industry pay their fair share to deal with climate damages.

At the city and state level, we need to see more lawsuits to prosecute the industry for climate damages and disinformation. Over 30 cities and states have already filed suit, but with thousands of communities already paying the costs of extreme weather, sea level rise and other climate impacts, we could see hundreds of new cases in the years to come. Lawsuits aren’t the only tool at our disposal: five states are now pursuing “climate superfund” bills that would make Big Oil pay for climate impacts by contributing to a fund based on their share of historic emissions. Vermont could pass its version as early as this summer.

Ultimately, the future of Big Oil accountability is up to us. The fossil fuel industry has spent billions on its efforts to lull us to sleep with fairy tales about ‘algae fuels’ or ‘natural’ gas. This week’s hearing was another wake up call to the reality of their deception and lies. Let’s not let it go to waste.

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