Democrats refer Big Oil investigation to Justice Department

By Emma Dumain, Lesley Clark | 05/22/2024 01:49 PM EDT

The industry called the move “another unfounded political charade.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and House Oversight and Accountability ranking member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) during a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday. Emma Dumain/E&E News

Two congressional Democrats are asking the Justice Department to pick up where they’ve left off in a yearslong investigation into an alleged climate misinformation campaign perpetuated over decades by Big Oil.

The decision by Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and House Oversight and Accountability ranking member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) to escalate the matter to Attorney General Merrick Garland marks a new phase in the lawmakers’ crusade to hold major oil and gas companies, and their trade associations, accountable for the extent to which their activities have contributed to global warming.

It also signals something of an admission about what Whitehouse and Raskin see as the limits of what they can achieve by solely continuing the investigation on Capitol Hill.


Whitehouse has called his subpoena power limited, and in the House, Raskin is in the minority party, meaning he can’t set his panel’s agenda or request new documents.

Still, at a press conference on Capitol Hill announcing the referral, Whitehouse emphasized that his and Raskin’s work was far from finished.

“To the extent the DOJ would be assisted by additional evidence, we’re perfectly happy to continue to look,” he told reporters. “These are questions I’m going to continue to look at; [Raskin] has said, should the voters be good enough to return the House to Democratic hands and he’s the chairman, he would continue to look at it.”

It’s “completely appropriate … for us to continue” the investigation in Congress, Whitehouse continued, assuming the Justice Department takes up the case.

Justice confirmed receipt of the letter but declined further comment.

Both Whitehouse and Raskin have been consistent in their desire to lay the groundwork for federal investigators to take up their cause, regardless of the balance of power in the Senate and House.

“Based on our investigation … we believe that there is adequate evidence that fossil fuel industry companies and trade associations may have violated one or more federal statutes and that, accordingly, further investigation is warranted,” the lawmakers wrote to Garland in a Wednesday letter.

“We formally refer this matter to DOJ,” they continued, “and request that you launch an investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long history of engaging in deceptive practices to determine whether the entities violated any applicable federal statutes.”

Whitehouse and Raskin have transmitted to Garland thousands of pages of internal memos and emails uncovered by the House Oversight Committee in the previous Congress, when Democrats were in the majority.

They are also sending over a tranche of materials processed during the current Congress by House Oversight and Senate Budget Democratic aides, along with a joint staff report detailing the extent of “deceptive practices” by Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute.

The documents show the extent to which the oil companies have engaged in public relations campaigns to improve their “green” corporate image.

They reveal how executives have partnered with prominent academics whose studies might highlight the environmental advantages of natural gas. They also illustrate circumstances where companies have privately conceded they won’t meet the climate goals they have publicly pledged to achieve.

And they expose episodes where industry representatives received alarming information about the climate impact of their practices but chose to ignore the warnings.

Raskin and Whitehouse say the redactions provide “a basis to infer that there is even more damning evidence of deceptive practices by the companies and their trade associations waiting to be uncovered.”

American Petroleum Institute spokesperson Andrea Woods said in a statement, “This is another unfounded political charade to distract from persistent inflation and America’s need for more energy, including oil and natural gas. U.S. energy workers are focused on delivering the reliable, affordable oil and natural gas Americans demand and any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that Whitehouse and Raskin were setting “a dangerous precedent by attempting to leverage federal law enforcement agencies to settle policy disputes.

“Their referral insinuates legal violations without identifying a single law that has allegedly been broken,” he continued. “Criminalizing policy disagreements is a concerning departure from constructive dialogue, especially since the Chamber made legitimate efforts to cooperate with the committee consistent with our constitutional rights.”

Raskin and Whitehouse have previously accused the Chamber of being the least responsive to the House Oversight Committee’s subpoena request.

A history of calls for litigation

The new documents and the report were the subject of a May 1 Senate Budget Committee hearing. Whitehouse has used his gavel to draw connections between the worsening climate crisis and increasing economic volatility.

In fact, Whitehouse held the panel’s 19th climate hearing Wednesday morning before his press conference with Raskin. It focused on the growing financial costs of drought and water scarcity.

Whitehouse, a former prosecutor, said of his scrutiny of oil and gas, “The complaint writes itself.”

“In the course of our oversight investigation,” Raskin added, “we have learned a lot of troubling facts that need to be turned over to the executive branch of government … which takes care that the laws are faithfully executed and implemented.”

They are not the first Democrats to request a federal investigation into the fossil fuel industry. Congressional lawmakers have been pushing for such a Justice-level probe since at least 2015, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) asked Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch to form a task force to look into alleged fraud.

Supporters of a Justice Department inquiry point to its investigation of the tobacco industry to argue that there is precedent for finding that a company conducted a misinformation campaign to mislead consumers.

The department successfully sued major tobacco producers in the 1990s, leading to a 2006 federal court decision that found the industry had violated civil racketeering laws.

“Our investigation into the fossil fuel industry calls to mind the historic congressional investigation into deceptive practices of the tobacco industry and its trade associations, which led to investigations and litigation by several state attorneys general and the Department of Justice,” Whitehouse and Raskin wrote to Garland.

“DOJ is well situated to pursue further investigation and take any appropriate legal action, as it has in similar cases involving the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries.”

At the May 1 Budget hearing, Whitehouse invited as one witness Sharon Eubanks, a former Justice Department attorney and lead counsel for the United States in its civil action against the tobacco industry.

“The similarities between the conduct of the tobacco industry and the petroleum industry form a solid and appropriate basis for investigating the petroleum industry,” Eubanks said during the hearing — a quote Whitehouse and Raskin found so salient they printed it on a poster displayed at the Wednesday afternoon press conference.

State, local suits

Separately, nearly two dozen states and local governments have filed lawsuits against the industry seeking compensation for climate change, and supporters say a federal investigation could provide a powerful assist.

The complaints — which, if successful, could leave the industry on the hook for billions of dollars — claim the companies violated the law by misleading consumers about the dangers of burning fossil fuels.

The climate cases could soon be heard in state courts following a yearslong effort by the industry to have them moved to federal court where the lawsuits are more likely to be dismissed.

The Supreme Court, however, is scheduled to meet in conference June 6 to determine whether to take up the industry’s latest bid to torpedo the cases.

The Center for Climate Integrity, which encourages communities to file the lawsuits, called for Garland to investigate the industry shortly after he was confirmed, noting the agency has considerable authority to do so.

Richard Wiles, the president of the center, called the letter the “most substantive and consequential call yet” for the department to take action.

“The DOJ has unique powers that must be engaged to stop the oil industry from lying and force it to tell the truth about its role in causing and perpetuating the climate crisis,” he said.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, another Democrat, asked Garland at his 2021 confirmation hearing if the department would consider “taking action against gas and oil companies for lying to the American public about the devastating effects of these products on climate change.”

Garland said at the time that he couldn’t answer because of pending litigation.

The Department of Justice last year sided with the local governments that say the oil and gas companies should help pay for the cost of dealing with climate change.

In a reversal of the Trump administration, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the Supreme Court that the justices should decline the oil industry’s petition to take up a jurisdictional battle meant to quash the lawsuits.