Congress Should Investigate the Oil Industry’s Role in Causing the Climate Crisis

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When the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January, they will launch a series of investigations into America’s most pressing challenges. Unquestionably, this will include a peek into the darkest corners of the Trump Administration. But will the House confront what could be the most egregious case of corporate abuse in the past 50 years?

In October, the United Nations issued its most frightening climate science report yet, warning that food shortages, wildfires, sea level rise, and other climate impacts could reach crisis levels as early as 2040.

The countdown has begun.

We have reached this crisis point, in large part because of the deliberate actions of a few companies. ExxonMobil and other major oil companies have known about the potentially catastrophic effects of their products since the 1970s, and yet chose to conceal these dangers from the public and allegedly defraud investors. (This reckless behavior is the focus of several lawsuits.)

And these companies have invested heavily in misinformation campaigns that successfully raised enough doubts about climate science to delay legislative action. These efforts continue to this day. We have lost decades of time that could have been spent shifting to a carbon neutral economy.

In the days after the midterm elections, the environmental group 350.org circulated a petition calling on Congress to: “launch a congressional investigation into ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel corporations for propagating confusion and denial about the scientific truth of climate change and for hiding the risks posed by their business activities to the planet.”

The concerns that 350.org and others have expressed are not about ExxonMobil’s right to voice its opinion. Rather, the concerns are about the company’s failure to meet its obligations when it chose to mislead the public and its investors. In cases where the wrongdoing of ExxonMobil and other major oil companies has caused harm to communities, it is up to the courts to examine the situation and decide on appropriate compensation.

But there is also added value in a congressional investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s behavior, especially if it helps Congress to design a more effective federal response to climate change in the future. Here are some of the policy decisions that an investigation would help to inform:

  • Want to change public behavior to embrace greener technologies? You will need to account for the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation campaigns that are trying to do the opposite – to prolong our addiction to fossil fuels.
  • Want to ensure that investors have access to information about climate risks? You will need to look into allegations that the fossil fuel industry is defrauding investors.
  • Want a deal on a carbon tax? You will need to be aware of the “Faustian bargain” being offered by the fossil fuel industry, in which the industry’s acceptance of a carbon tax comes with indemnification from climate lawsuits.
  • Want to correct the market distortions in the energy sector and shift towards a more competitive, carbon neutral economy? You will need to account for the hidden subsidies that the fossil fuel industry advocates for and receives at the federal and state levels.

The House Democrats have rightly identified climate change as a priority and have pledged to use their investigative powers to move the issue forward. In this era where science is so easily fogged out by propaganda, an investigation into ExxonMobil and other oil majors could help lead our nation to a faster, more effective response to the climate crisis.

 

 

Note: EarthRights International serves as legal counsel for county and city governments in Colorado that have brought a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor to recover costs associated with climate change. For more information, please visit our case page.

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