'Scathing Indictment' of Big Oil by US Senate Committees

Jessica Corbett
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) speaks during a press conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 24, 2023. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Apr. 30, 2024

The report details a "campaign of deception, disinformation, and doublespeak waged using dark money, phony front groups, false economics, and relentless exertion of political influence."

Two U.S. congressional committees on Tuesday released a report that "provides a rare glimpse into 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."

The report—titled Denial, Disinformation, and Doublespeak: Big Oil's Evolving Efforts to Avoid Accountability for Climate Change—was released after nearly three years of investigation by the Democratic staffs of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability and the Senate Budget Committee.

"For decades, the fossil fuel industry has known about the economic and climate harms of its products but has deceived the American public to keep collecting more than $600 billion each year in subsidies while raking in record-breaking profits," said Senate Budget Committee Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

"As this joint report makes clear, the industry's outright denial of climate change has evolved into a green-seeming cover for its ongoing covert operation—a campaign of deception, disinformation, and doublespeak waged using dark money, phony front groups, false economics, and relentless exertion of political influence—to block climate progress," the senator added.

In a statement welcoming the report, Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said that "this new evidence of Big Oil's climate lies will likely be used to hold these companies accountable in court—and it should generate renewed calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to finally open its own investigation into the fossil fuel industry."

The congressional probe targeted four companies and two industry allies: BP America, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell USA as well as the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Chamber of Commerce. As the report details, the committee staffers found:

  • Documents demonstrate for the first time that fossil fuel companies internally do not dispute that they have understood since at least the 1960s that burning fossil fuels causes climate change and then worked for decades to undermine public understanding of this fact and to deny the underlying science.
  • Big Oil's deception campaign evolved from explicit denial of the basic science underlying climate change to deception, disinformation, and doublespeak.
  • The fossil fuel industry relies on trade associations to spread confusing and misleading narratives and to lobby against climate action.
  • The fossil fuel industry strategically partners with universities to lend an aura of credibility to its deception campaigns while also silencing opposition voices.
  • All six entities—Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, API, and the Chamber—obstructed and delayed the committees' investigation.

The report was released on the eve of a Wednesday morning Senate hearing hosted by Whitehouse. The House panel's ranking member, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.)—who participated in a related October 2021 event in the lower chamber—is expected to join multiple experts in testifying.

"We applaud Sen. Whitehouse, Rep. Raskin, and their committees for helping to shine further light on Big Oil's ongoing climate deception," said Wiles. "Communities across the country are already taking these polluters to court to make them pay for their deceit, and many of their lawsuits have cited documents unearthed by Congress as evidence."

"Big Oil's concerted efforts to mislead the public about their destructive industry are the most consequential corporate fraud in history," he continued. "Tomorrow's hearing should make clear that it's time for the U.S. Justice Department to get off the sidelines and take action to hold Big Oil accountable for lying to the American people for decades."

Wiles was far from alone in demanding action from the Biden administration based on the committees' findings.

"This report is a scathing indictment of the fossil fuel industry's lies and corruption," declared Cassidy DiPaola, a spokesperson for the Make Polluters Pay campaign. "As the impacts of the climate crisis worsen, from deadly heatwaves to devastating floods and wildfires, it's never been more important to hold polluters accountable for the damage they've knowingly caused. The Senate Budget Committee's investigation is a critical step towards justice, and it's time the Biden administration follows suit."

Sunrise Movement executive director Aru Shiney-Ajay urged President Joe Biden—who is seeking reelection in November—to "fight for young people by holding companies like Exxon accountable for their climate lies."

"President Biden must hold Big Oil responsible by declaring a climate emergency and suing fossil fuel companies for creating the climate crisis and lying to the public about it," Shiney-Ajay said. "For too long we've seen fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Chevron deny the cause of the climate crisis and pretend to fight for climate action, all the while lining their pockets with bigger and bigger returns. This must stop and the president can do something about it."

"Biden must direct the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute fossil fuel companies like Exxon for their disinformation," she argued. "Until the administration starts treating Big Oil like Big Tobacco, everyday Americans will continue to pay for their lies with flooded homes, hotter summers, and more extreme weather."

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[Top photo: U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) speaks during a press conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 24, 2023.

 (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)]