Will big oil finally be held accountable for decades of climate misinformation?

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>Will big oil finally be held accountable for decades of climate misinformation?

The US House Oversight and Reform Committee is investigating the role of industry in the spread of disinformation about fossil fuel and its role in the climate crisis.

Living on EarthNovember 15, 2021 · 10:00 AM EST

This Dec. 22, 2018, file photo shows a pump jack over an oil well along Interstate 25 near Dacono, Colorado.

David Zalubowski/ AP, File

The US House Oversight and Reform Committee summoned top executives from Exxon, Shell, BP and Chevron to testify in front of a committee hearing in October, as part of its ongoing investigation into the fossil fuel industry's promotion of climate disinformation.

In letters summoning the companies to testify on Oct. 28, committee chair Carolyn Maloney of New York and environment subcommittee chair Ro Khanna of California, allege the oil giants “led a coordinated effort to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change” in order to protect the nearly $2 trillion in profits the companies amassed over the last three decades.

The committee plans to probe how much these companies have known for decades about climate change, how they deployed a massive disinformation effort to obstruct government efforts on climate action and how they continue to lobby today to stop climate policies that might affect their bottom lines.

The committee also called two major fossil fuel lobbying organizations, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce, to testify.

“We know an awful lot now, due to the great work of journalists and other investigators [and] academics,” says Kert Davies, founder and director of the Climate Investigations Center. “We spent a lot of time in archives ourselves. We know a lot about what the companies knew in the 80s and into the 90s, and we have some really amazing documents that have been uncovered, specifically by journalists.”

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For example, he says, a 1988 internal document from Shell outlines the following scenario: In 2010, massive storms hit the East Coast. Following the storms, a coalition of environmental nongovernmental organizations brings a class action lawsuit against the US government and fossil fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists, including their own, have been saying for years — that something must be done.

“So, they kind of predicted their own fate, they predicted that they would be called to account for this at some point and that what their own scientists knew really did matter,” Davies says.

Shell had also done its own internal assessment of the greenhouse effect in the 1980s, Davies notes. In that report, labeled “confidential," the company talks about its role in climate change and its own emissions being part of the problem. The document, Davies adds, also states the following: “However, by the time the global warming becomes detectable, it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilize the situation.”

“This is 1988 — 30 some years ago — and here we are now,” Davies says. “We are having trouble stabilizing the situation, and finding effective countermeasures is becoming increasingly difficult.”

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The Republicans on the committees will likely “defend big oil's legacy and say all sorts of nonsense,” Davies says, but Democrats have a number of members on the committee who are committed to getting at the truth and have strong prosecutorial minds. In addition, it is a full committee hearing, which means the Chair will have the power to compel people to testify.

Exxon, BP, Shell, and some of their supporters in Washington, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce said they looked forward to the hearings and support a transition to a low carbon or net-zero future. Davies isn’t buying it.

“We know that they have obstructed policy on climate change for decades and we know this through their own internal documents and we know this through the outward pressure that they've applied. … So they're not to be trusted.”

Kert Davies, founder and director, Climate Investigations Center

“That's what they say and that's what their advertising says and that's what they are projecting — that they are thoughtful companies that have cared deeply about this forever. We know the truth is different,” he says. “We know that they have obstructed policy on climate change for decades and we know this through their own internal documents and we know this through the outward pressure that they've applied. Even right now they're trying to kill some of the bits that are in the Build Back Better plan. So they're not to be trusted.”

“[W]hat we have to avoid is this hearing turning into a PR opportunity for the companies and letting them talk about their net-zero commitments and all this happy talk that really doesn't amount to a hill of beans when you look at the numbers."

Kert Davies, founder and director, Climate Investigations Center

“[W]hat we have to avoid is this hearing turning into a PR opportunity for the companies and letting them talk about their net-zero commitments and all this happy talk that really doesn't amount to a hill of beans when you look at the numbers,” Davies adds.

If the committee does indeed find evidence that the companies deceived the public, provided false data to government regulators, or if it establishes other wrongdoing on the part of industry, the question then will be what powers of enforcement or redress it will have. Any remedies Congress might recommend are different than what might be achieved in a courtroom setting, Davies notes.

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Several government agencies, however, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Justice, and even FEMA, which has spent billions to help states and individuals cope with storms, fires and drought, might have an interest in pursuing lawsuits against the companies holding them financially responsible.

Whether or not Congress determines these companies have committed a crime, their actions have “inflicted harm on all of us and [are] now inflicting costs on all of us,” Davies says.

“The insurance companies are saying, ‘We can't handle this, paying out these billion dollars impacts for much longer,’” he notes. “But it is absolutely true that the costs are mounting. Everybody's feeling it. People's homes are being washed down the rivers, roofs are being blown off of hospitals, forests are burning up entire towns. We're in a major crisis, and it's coming home to people across this country.”

“[People] need to know that we have been victims of a massive campaign of deception, spanning a generation, that has left us behind on solving the climate crisis."

Kert Davies, founder and director, Climate Investigations Center

“I think, frankly, the best thing to come out of this hearing is people need to know who to blame when these things happen,” Davies says. “And they need to know that we have been victims of a massive campaign of deception, spanning a generation, that has left us behind on solving the climate crisis.”

This article is by Adam Wernick, based on an interview that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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