Democrats pile on against Big Oil

By Ben Lefebvre, Emma Dumain | 05/23/2024 01:29 PM EDT

House and Senate Democrats have launched new probes into the oil and gas industry.

Press conference.

(Left to right) Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Reps. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Calif.) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) stand in front of environmental advocates during a press conference Thursday. Emma Dumain/POLITICO's E&E News

Democrats are upping the political ante against the oil industry from all directions, from committee chairs to the party’s most senior member of Congress.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would be sending a letter next week to Attorney General Merrick Garland, requesting the Justice Department “investigate and prosecute” oil companies that might have engaged in “collusion and price fixing.”

“The federal government must use every tool at our disposal to investigate the oil industry, hold accountable liable actors and illegal activities,” Schumer said at a press conference outside the Capitol, joined by colleagues and climate advocates holding signs that read, “Stop gouging us at the pump.”


He continued, “There is something wrong, very wrong, when big oil companies rake in the cash while polluting the atmosphere at the expense of the American people.”

Schumer is the latest, and highest ranking, lawmaker to weigh in on allegations from the Federal Trade Commission that the former CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources, a company now owned by Exxon Mobil, attempted to collude with rival companies and OPEC to fix oil production at levels that would keep prices elevated.

House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) on Wednesday launched an investigation into the charges, seeking information from Exxon, Chevron and other industry entities on their possible communications with officials from the oil-producing cartel OPEC+.

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee piled on Thursday with their own letter to the chair, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), asking that he, too, direct the panel’s resources to open an investigation into the collusion allegations.

“Over the last two years, you and your colleagues have repeatedly expressed concern about high gas prices, trying to blame environmental protections and efforts to hold polluters accountable, even while the U.S. has been the number one producer of oil and the number one producer and exporter of gas in the world, and industry profits have soared,” the members, led by committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), wrote to Westerman.

“The complaint released by the FTC provides evidence for a different explanation that is more consistent with that given by Committee Democrats: Big Oil companies conspired to drive up their own profit at the expense of consumers by colluding with cartels consisting of countries that pose national security threats to the U.S.,” the lawmakers wrote.

Westerman’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump connection

Meanwhile, Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Thursday were firing off letters to nine oil companies and their trade associations seeking information about what executives may have promised — or been promised — at a dinner with former President Donald Trump, where he asked them for $1 billion in campaign donations.

“Time and time again, both Mr. Trump and the U.S. oil and gas industry have proved they are willing to sell out Americans to pad their own pockets,” the senators wrote in separate letters to Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Continental Resources, Chesapeake Energy, Occidental Petroleum, Venture Global LNG, Cheniere Energy, EQT and trade association American Petroleum Institute, kicking off a formal, joint investigation between the two committees. “Such potential abuses must be scrutinized.”

Wyden and Whitehouse are asking whether representatives from those companies discussed potential industry-friendly policies Trump might adopt in a second administration in return for their financial support.

The senators also want information on what policy-related documents industry lawyers might be ready to supply to Trump for his signature if he once again sits in the Oval Office, an issue first reported by POLITICO.

“Such an obvious policies-for-money transaction reeks of cronyism and corruption,” Wyden and Whitehouse said. “This solicitation, coupled with troubling reports that fossil fuel interests and other companies have been drafting language for use in executive orders favorable to their businesses during a possible second Trump Administration, demand immediate additional inquiry.”

Spokespeople for the companies did not immediately reply to questions. An API spokesperson said the meeting was nothing out of the ordinary.

“This is yet another election-year stunt to distract from America’s need for more energy, including more oil and natural gas, to power our economy and combat persistent inflation,” API spokesperson Andrea Woods said. “API meets with candidates and policymakers to discuss the need for sound energy policies, and this meeting was no different.”

That Democrats are increasing their scrutiny of the oil industry just as executives are contributing millions of dollars to Trump’s reelection efforts may not be coincidental, said Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, a progressive good-governance advocacy group.

“It’s right on policy, it’s right on politics,” Slocum said of the recent spate of investigations.

“You got the FTC showing attempts at collusion with OPEC,” Slocum continued. “That’s a scandal. You got Trump saying in front of tons of people, ‘If you give me a billion dollars, I’m going to give you everything you want,’ the Democrats need to investigate this. If Democrats can land a few punches with an accurate narrative that Big Oil colluded with Saudi Arabia and is buying favors from Donald Trump, I think that’s good politics.”