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Sparks

The Best Idea From Today’s Big Oil Hearing

Stealing a page from the Big Tobacco playbook.

The Capitol.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It was always a fantasy to think that the Senate Committee on the Budget’s hearing on oil disinformation would actually be about oil disinformation. It was still shocking, though, how far off the rails things ran.

The hearing concerned a report released Tuesday by the committee along with Democrats in the House documenting “the extensive efforts undertaken by fossil fuel companies to deceive the public and investors about their knowledge of the effects of their products on climate change and to undermine efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.” This builds on the already extensive literature documenting the fossil fuel industry’s deliberate dissemination of lies about climate change and its role in causing it, including the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt and a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-nominated series from Inside Climate News on Exxon’s climate denial PR machine. But more, of course, is more.

The new stuff in the joint congressional report includes evidence that fossil fuel companies accepted the validity of climate research internally while publicly attacking it, and that they hailed technologies like carbon capture and algae-based fuels while privately doubting they would ever achieve meaningful scale. The report also details how all six entities it investigated — fossil fuel companies Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP, plus the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — slow-walked the investigation, providing redacted documents in response to subpoenas and withholding others altogether.

“If the companies had fully complied in good faith,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, the House committee’s ranking Democrat, in his prepared remarks, “who knows what else we might have uncovered?”

The thing about these kinds of political exercises is that, well, they’re political. While there is indisputable value in investigating and recording the industry’s misdeeds, a congressional hearing is no venue for the earnest pursuit of truth.

The various members of the Senate Budget Committee took turns yanking Raskin off-message — and that included the Democrats. Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, went into full denial mode, speaking of “climate change alarmism” and concluding that “there’s literally nothing we can do about this other than adapt.” When Sen. Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, had his turn, however, he subjected Raskin to volleys of questions about forest fires and plastics, neither of which were a subject of the (to be clear, extensive) committee report.

My personal favorite moment in the hearing came after the break, when Raskin gave way to a panel of energy policy and disinformation experts including Sharon Eubanks, who led the Department of Justice case against Big Tobacco. In her opening statement, Eubanks stated plainly and clearly an idea she and others (both outside and inside the federal government) have been propounding for years.

“The similarities between the conduct of the tobacco industry and the petroleum industry form a solid and appropriate basis for investigating the petroleum industry,” she read into the congressional record. “Furthermore, we should not waste any more time wringing our hands about what can be done. There exists solid evidentiary basis to move forward with a request to the Department of Justice to investigate the actions of the fossil fuel industry.”

But that’s not even the good part.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was midway through a line of questioning about how such a prosecution might go down when he stumbled a bit asking about the damages paid in the tobacco case. “I don’t remember exactly what the settlement for tobacco was — it was huge,” he said, when Eubanks cut in.

"It wasn’t a settlement. I won,” she told Sanders. “The companies were forced to change the way they do business." And that, she went on to say, is the point of all this — not extracting money, although that’s nice too, but rather to force companies to operate in a more open and honest fashion.

The companies, for their part, are unsurprisingly unruffled by this latest demonstration of their deceitful behavior. “These are tired allegations that have already been publicly addressed through previous Congressional hearings on the same topic and litigation in the courts,” an Exxon spokesperson told Bloomberg yesterday. “As we have said time and time again, climate change is real.”

In one thing, at least, Exxon isn’t wrong: These allegations are tired. I myself am not a lawyer, of course, but it might be time to listen to Eubanks. She seems to know what she’s talking about.

Jillian Goodman profile image

Jillian Goodman

Jillian is Heatmap's deputy editor. Before that, she was opinion editor at The Information and deputy editor at Bloomberg Green.

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