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Democrats Will Subpoena Big Oil to Force Disclosure of Climate Denial Campaigns

The subpoenas will force the companies to turn in internal documents on their strategies to block climate action.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) speaks to crowds on October 2, 2021 in New York, New York.

In a historic hearing on Thursday, House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) announced her plan to subpoena documents from oil and gas companies to discern their role in spreading climate denial and disinformation.

Oil giants Exxon, BP, Chevron and Shell, as well as the trade association American Petroleum Institute and the lobbying group Chamber of Commerce will be included in the subpoena. This is an enormous victory for climate advocates, who have until now relied on public documents, testimony of former employees and leaked documents to understand the extent of the lies that corporations have perpetuated for decades.

The subpoena will force the companies to disclose documents on so-called “shadow groups” recently uncovered by reporters. Earlier this year, an Exxon lobbyist was caught on video admitting to using shadow groups to fight legislation that would address the climate crisis, targeting specific senators like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia).

Companies will also be forced to turn over materials from their executive boards detailing corporate strategies to subvert climate action and spread lies about the climate crisis.

Climate activists and researchers have highlighted Maloney’s subpoenas as a vital step toward accountability for the oil and gas industry — and, perhaps, a step toward its decline.

“For all the skeletons we’ve already found in Big Oil’s closet, the reality is we’ve only been looking through the keyhole at a few hundred key documents, uncovered by tenacious journalists and scholars in archives around the world,” Geoffrey Supran, a researcher at Harvard University who has been instrumental in uncovering fossil fuel lies, told Truthout.

“I believe the American public deserve to know the truth,” Supran continued. “This is where congressional authority to demand documents comes in, and why, as with the tobacco hearings of the 1990s, this hearing and its announcement of subpoenas could be a watershed moment, blowing that closet door wide open and exposing thousands — if not millions — of damning documents that will likely bring more skeletons tumbling out.”

The announcement came at the end of an over six-hour-long hearing, with testimony from the leaders of oil and gas giants on their roles in spreading climate disinformation. Research has shown that Exxon and other oil and gas companies have known about their contributions to the climate crisis for decades, but have spent billions of dollars spreading climate denial — all while raking in billions in subsidies from the U.S. government.

During the hearing, Maloney said that she hoped “today would be a turning point for the oil industry.” Though valuable information was revealed during the hearing, it was mostly filled with CEOs lying for hours, touting their supposed commitments to addressing the climate crisis while still refusing to acknowledge that the climate crisis is an existential threat to humanity.

Lawmakers have tried to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable in the past, but oil and gas companies have consistently lied, delayed and dodged accountability. Indeed, Maloney and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), chair of the Subcommittee on Environment within the committee, asked the oil and gas companies to submit documentation of this disinformation prior to the hearing.

After missing deadline after deadline, the corporations submitted tens of thousands of pages of documents at the last minute — but rather than submitting relevant internal documents, they submitted a number of documents that were already publicly available. “I have tried very hard to obtain this information voluntarily, but the oil companies employ the same tactics they used for decades on climate policy: delay and obstruction,” Maloney said.

“One entity sent in 1,500 pages printed from their own website, available publicly along with 4,000 pages of newsletters filled with industry press releases,” she continued. “Others sent us thousands of pages of publicly available annual reports and the company’s postings on Facebook and LinkedIn.”

Rep. James Comer (R-Kentucky), a ranking member of the Oversight Committee, attempted to rebut Maloney’s subpoena threat, saying that the request for fossil fuel companies to send in documents was “an infringement on their First Amendment rights.” Maloney responded by pointing out that the thousands of pages they sent in were nonsensical and had nothing to do with the information that the committee was seeking.

It’s unclear what Comer is referring to when he references the First Amendment, which disallows Congress from restricting freedom of speech and the press. Requesting documents from a private corporation is an entirely separate issue from, for example, Republicans trying to outlaw protests, as they attempted in backlash to the movement for Black lives — a genuine violation of First Amendment rights.

Rather, Comer’s comment was a continuation of the years-long conservative trend of invoking the First Amendment over pretty much anything. Other Republicans made similar claims earlier in the hearing, along with a host of misleading and absurd comments praising the industry responsible for destroying the climate.

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