Democrats refer Big Oil probe findings to the Justice Department

House and Senate Democrats are referring the results of their probe into alleged climate disinformation by the oil industry to the Justice Department.

“We are making a formal referral to Attorney General [Merrick] Garland to commence a proper inquiry into whether charges should be brought and what charges should be brought,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told reporters.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said specifically that they want the Justice Department to “investigate big oil for its decades long disinformation campaign to mislead the American public about the climate effects of fossil fuels and to obstruct meaningful action on climate change.”

The pair invoked the department’s 1999 suit against major tobacco companies — noting that this was a civil suit under an anti-racketeering law.

The referral follows the Democrats’ release of a report last month in which they accused the industry of “deception, disinformation, and doublespeak” based on internal industry documents. Oil companies have denied wrongdoing.

The industry has faced numerous lawsuits since Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 that Exxon knew about climate change for decades but still promoted climate denial.

The committee released thousands of documents alongside its report last month. In one such document, an ExxonMobil media relations manager admits internally to “working against” both climate science and climate policy.

“It’s true that Inside Climate News originally accused us of working against the science but ultimately modified their accusation to working against policies meant to stop climate change, such as Kyoto. I’m ok either way since they were both true at one time or another,” wrote Exxon’s Alan Jeffers.

Whitehouse said that the lawmakers “invite the Department of Justice to look through the documents that we’ve released” and “let them know that there’s a whole lot more documents for them to look to if they wish.”

The probe was bigger than just the one company, also including Chevron, Shell and BP, as well as lobbying groups the Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute (API).

An API spokesperson described the referral as “unfounded.”

“This is another unfounded political charade to distract from persistent inflation and America’s need for more energy, including oil and natural gas,” said spokesperson Andrea Woods in a written statement.

“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,” Woods added.

Exxon declined to comment on the effort to involve the Justice Department, but referred The Hill to its past statement on the Democrats’ allegations.

“These are tired allegations that have already been publicly addressed through previous Congressional hearings on the same topic and litigation in the courts. As we have said time and time again, climate change is real, and we have an entire business dedicated to reducing emissions,” the company said last month.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce accused the Democrats of trying to use law enforcement against those they disagree with.

“Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Raskin are setting a dangerous precedent by attempting to leverage federal law enforcement agencies to settle policy disputes,” said Neil Bradley, the group’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, in a written statement.

“Their referral insinuates legal violations without identifying a single law that has allegedly been broken,” Bradley added.  “Criminalizing policy disagreements is a concerning departure from constructive dialogue, especially since the Chamber made legitimate efforts to cooperate with the committee consistent with our constitutional rights.”

The Hill has reached out to the other companies and a Justice Department spokesperson for comment.

The referral is the culmination of a years-long investigation by Democrats that included the oil companies’ 2021 House testimony and Democrats’ subpoena for additional documents.

Updated at 4:50 p.m.

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