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Democrats refer ‘big oil’ investigation to Justice Department

Comparisons made to tobacco litigation that resulted in liability for concealing health concerns

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., took over an investigation that began in the House.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., took over an investigation that began in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse and House Oversight and Accountability ranking member Jamie Raskin on Wednesday referred their investigation into large oil and gas companies’ past knowledge about the climate impacts of fossil fuels to the Justice Department.

In the referral, Raskin, D-Md., and Whitehouse, D-R.I., argue that the department should investigate four such companies — BP America, Chevron Corp., ExxonMobil Corp. and Shell Oil Co. — as well as the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for “denialism and disinformation” about the harm caused by use of their products.

The pair said they agreed with the May 1 testimony of Sharon Eubanks, former director of the Justice Department’s tobacco litigation team, that there is adequate foundation for building a case against the oil industry.

“Internal documents obtained in our investigation demonstrate that fossil fuel companies do not dispute any longer that they have known for more than 60 years that burning fossil fuels causes climate change,” Raskin said. “And yet they’ve worked for decades to undermine public understanding of that fact and to deny and distort and misstate the underlying science.”

Throughout the course of the investigation, which began in the House in 2021, the Democratic lawmakers have compared the actions taken by the oil companies and industry groups to those taken by tobacco companies to hide the harmful effects of cigarette smoking from the public.

The Justice Department and many states pursued lawsuits over these actions, which required the tobacco companies to alter their business practices and pay out billions of dollars. Whitehouse made comparisons to the 2006 ruling where U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler found that the tobacco companies violated civil racketeering laws.

Earlier this month the House Oversight Democrats and the Senate Budget Committee released a joint staff report outlining their findings.

The oil industry has consistently refuted Democratic lawmakers’ conclusions over the course of the investigation.

“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,” API spokesperson Andrea Woods said.

Raskin and Whitehouse said that Congress would still move forward with its investigation regardless of the Justice Department’s decision. Whitehouse said he would continue to examine the issue through the Senate Budget Committee, and if the House returns to Democratic control Raskin would pursue full compliance with his committee’s previously issued subpoenas.

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