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Democrats still aim to probe oil giants’ knowledge of climate change

State and local governments press suits for compensation

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., one of the leaders of the inquiry while chairing the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, passed its work to Senate Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who had previously talked with Khanna about examining the oil companies' climate comments.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., one of the leaders of the inquiry while chairing the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, passed its work to Senate Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who had previously talked with Khanna about examining the oil companies' climate comments. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Democrats aim to continue a House investigation into the oil industry’s so-called supermajors and what they knew about climate change as localities across the country seek compensation for its effects.

The Democrats on what was then called the House Oversight and Reform Committee launched an investigation in 2021 examining whether the largest oil companies privately knew their products were contributing to climate change and hiding this fact from the public.

As part of the investigation, the heads of BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Shell Oil, as well as the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, testified before the committee, defending their business practices against Democratic criticism. However, current Oversight Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., dismissed the inquiry as little more than a political stunt.

With the change in leadership, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., one of the leaders on the inquiry while chairing the panel’s environmental subcommittee, passed the committee’s work to Senate Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who had previously talked with Khanna about examining the oil companies’ climate comments.

“The idea for me to do that originally was his brainchild,” Khanna said. “He came to the office and gave me the idea that this is what I can do with the majority. So I’m looking forward to seeing what his committee does.”

Whitehouse, known for his floor speeches raising alarms about the effects of climate change, has already held hearings examining the effect climate change could have on the federal budget and insurance markets. Whitehouse said he also intends to “shine light on the fossil fuel industry’s obstacle course of deceit and greenwashing that blocks pragmatic solutions.”

“I appreciate the leadership of House Democrats last Congress and share House Oversight Ranking Member Raskin’s determination to expose how Big Oil’s campaign of dishonesty, dark money, and malign political influence will undermine America’s economic stability if left unchallenged,” Whitehouse said in a statement, referencing Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the committee’s ranking Democrat. “Big Oil corruption is a massive contributing factor in our looming climate emergency, and we must all work together to address it.”

Supporters have compared the inquiry into the oil giants to the 1990s investigation into “Big Tobacco,” with some hoping it may provide similar support for ongoing litigation. States, cities and counties are seeking to demonstrate the oil companies knew the effects the sale of their products would have on the environment, in violation of local consumer protection and public nuisance laws.

State courts

On April 24, the Supreme Court turned down requests from energy companies to examine a procedural question in these cases, where the localities are seeking compensation for the effects of climate change, such as fire, flood and drought.

The ruling will allow a case brought by Boulder County, the city of Boulder and San Miguel County in Colorado to proceed in state court. The companies had sought to move the cases to federal court, arguing that their claims were in fact federal since issues such as pollution are regulated by laws such as the Clean Air Act.

The decision will allow the case to proceed in state court, where the localities expected a more favorable hearing of the case.

“Oil companies are making record profits while our planet continues to warm,” Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett said in a statement following the ruling. “It’s only fair that the companies that profit from irresponsible actions compensate communities for the harm they cause.”

The Biden administration reversed the position of the Trump administration and supported the localities in their bid to keep the cases in state court. The Supreme Court also denied similar requests concerning cases brought by Rhode Island, Honolulu, Baltimore and San Mateo, Calif.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who sits on the Oversight Committee, said she believes the hearings held over the past two years provided substantial evidence these companies knew the effects their products would have. She referred to the damages lawsuits as the “legal vanguard in our collective ability to confront climate change.”

“They knew this science far before the public did, far before even in some areas the U.S. government started to figure things out in the ’70s,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “I believe that these lawsuits represent a very significant frontier in making sure that we’re holding the folks responsible financially, as well.”

Ultimately, executives from the four companies and API answered questions before the House committee last year, though not to the satisfaction of Democrats, who accused the executives of obfuscating their roles.

Representatives for Chevron and Shell did not respond to requests for comment about the Senate inquiry. Spokesmen for BP and Exxon declined to comment.

“America’s oil and natural gas industry is focused on delivering affordable, reliable energy while reducing emissions, and any allegations to the contrary are false,” said API Senior Vice President Megan Bloomgren. “Just as America leads the world in reducing emissions to generational lows, we are poised to lead in the next generation of low carbon technologies, including carbon capture and hydrogen. We will continue working with lawmakers and regulators on policies that unlock innovation and accelerate progress on emissions reductions.” 

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