Senators demand Justice Dept. probe oil giants for global warming cover-up
The sun sets at Chalmette refinery in Chalmette, La., located just over the Mississippi River levee May 3, 2020. While the Inflation Reduction Act concentrates on clean energy incentives that could drastically reduce overall U.S. emissions, it also buoys oil and gas interests by mandating leasing of vast areas of public lands off the nation's coasts. | David Grunfeld/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP

WASHINGTON—Three progressive senators are demanding the Justice Department investigate the nation’s big oil companies for covering up and lying to consumers and the country, for decades that they knew about fossil fuels causing global warming—all in pursuit of enormous profits.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told Attorney General Merrick Garland on July 31 that Big Oil had been warned as far back as 1959 by Edward Teller—the “father of the H-Bomb”—that continued burning of fossil fuels would cause a catastrophic increase in global temperatures, with disastrous results.

And the corporate chieftains, aided and abetted by their lobby, the American Petroleum Institute and its longtime heavyweight chief, Frank Ikard, covered it up, journal articles show. The senators want to meet Garland personally to discuss a DOJ lawsuit.

The Justice Department should “bring suits against the fossil fuel industry for its longstanding and carefully coordinated campaign to mislead consumers and discredit climate science in pursuit of massive profits,” the three senators said.

“The actions of ExxonMobil, Shell, and potentially other fossil fuel companies represent a clear violation of federal racketeering laws, truth in advertising laws, consumer protection laws, and potentially other laws, and the department must act swiftly to hold them accountable for their unlawful actions,” Merkley, Sanders, and Warren wrote.

A Google search of the words “fossil fuel firms and global warming” turns up articles as far back as 2015, in Scientific American, detailing the corporate cover-up. That article also disclosed Teller’s warning, complete with a vertical chart of rising temperatures.

The lawmakers said 40 cities and states, starting with San Francisco-Oakland in one lawsuit and three other California cities in another, both filed in 2017, have sued the oil firms on a variety of charges, many of them around the impact of global warming without touching the unknown cover-up. The oil firms have tied up the suits in federal and state courts ever since.

The lawmakers cited a Minnesota state lawsuit from 2020 in particular. Minnesota sued the oil firms for spending “millions on advertising and public relations because they understood that an accurate understanding of climate change would affect their ability to continue to earn profits by conducting business as usual.”

But a chart from the Center for Climate Integrity shows the first case came from Imperial, Richmond, and Santa Cruz, Calif., 2017.  It has yet to go to trial, with the next hearing scheduled for Dec. 4.

“Despite these companies’ knowledge about climate change and the role their industry was playing in driving carbon emissions, they chose to participate in a decades-long, carefully coordinated campaign of misinformation to obfuscate climate science and convince the public that fossil fuels are not the primary driver of climate change.”

Those cities “called out 36 of the world’s largest oil companies” for global warming “impacts such as more frequent flooding, beach erosion and the possibility of water inundating roads, sewage treatment plants and other real estate, including the international airport.”

Fraud, deceit, trespass, and public nuisance

The latest suit, filed this June by Multnomah County (Portland), Ore., accuses the firms of “fraud and deceit, trespass and public nuisance” and damages from global warming’s creation of the heat dome that has hovered over the Pacific Northwest for months, leading to the region’s disastrous—and heavily polluting—forest fires.

Given all this evidence, plus company lies to a House subcommittee two years ago, the three senators told Garland DOJ should pursue its own investigation and joint state lawsuits too.

“In 1975, Shell-backed research concluded that increasing atmospheric carbon concentrations could cause global temperature increases that would drive ‘major climatic changes’ and compared the dangers of burning fossil fuels to nuclear waste. Beginning in the late 1970s, Exxon—now ExxonMobil—conducted extensive research on climate change that predicted current rising temperatures ‘correctly and skillfully.’”

The three senators compared Big Oil’s cover-up of its knowledge about global warming to Big Tobacco’s long cover-up—and disinformation campaign—against the fact that smoking causes cancer. The two lobbies even used some of the same lawyers and hired some of the same “experts,” the senators told Garland.

Man fishing in waters polluted by nearby fossil fuel installation. | Eric Gay/AP

“Like with Big Tobacco, the fossil fuel industry’s illegal, coordinated campaign of misinformation has proven tremendously profitable. From 1990 to 2019, the six largest private fossil fuel companies made $2.4 trillion in profits. In 2022, Exxon alone made $56 billion in profits—a record high for a western oil company. Shell reported record earnings of $39.9 billion. Chevron made a record $36.5 billion. BP made a record $27.7 billion.

“These profits have been made off the backs of people all around the world, especially frontline communities across the globe who have suffered and are suffering from the worst repercussions of climate change.

“Thanks to the illegal lies of the fossil fuel industry, climate change is wreaking catastrophic damage upon the United States. Floods, droughts, extreme weather disturbances, and wildfires are causing unprecedented damage,” with Deloitte estimating the cost at $14.5 trillion over the next 50 years.

“The costs of repairing our environment and transitioning away from fossil fuels must not fall on American taxpayers. Instead, they must be borne by the parties responsible for driving climate change and lying about the negative impacts of their products. The polluters must pay,” the lawmakers concluded.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.