On July 25, 2023, Rep. Ted Lieu and 19 other Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate sent a letter to United States Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking the Department of Justice to open an investigation into certain oil and gas companies. As the letter claims, one of these companies “had a deep and structural understanding of climate change as early as the 1970s and yet began to sow doubt about the science and the need for action.” Its knowledge is said to be based on research by in-house scientists who have warned that increasing carbon emissions could “induce major climate changes” which could in turn lead to “drastic economic consequences” and “serious strains on human societies”. Yet the company “continued to publicly promote the use of fossil fuels and participate in trade associations and other groups that pushed climate denial and opposed solutions.”
Although these companies no longer deny climate change, lawmakers accuse them of widespread greenwashing by “working to convince the public that they are part of the solution.” Specifically, the lawmakers claim that oil companies’ promises to “move away from fossil fuels have not been backed by ‘concrete actions'” and that these companies have “significantly cut back”[ed] investments in low-carbon projects,” while making record profits.
Based on these allegations, the group of lawmakers is urging the DOJ to take action. Drawing parallels with the tobacco industry’s efforts to mislead the public about the health effects of smoking — efforts that the Justice Department successfully pursued under the RICO Act — the letter urges the department of Justice to investigate “members of the fossil fuel industry to determine whether they have violated RICO, consumer protection, truth in advertising, public health or other laws.”
Taking the temperature: It remains to be seen what influence, if any, this letter will have on the DOJ. On the one hand, there is little new regarding these allegations. The letter is similar to a request Rep. Lieu sent to the DOJ in 2016. That letter also alleged a scheme by some oil companies to deceive the public and urged the DOJ to pursue oil companies using theories similar to those that have been applied against tobacco manufacturers. . On the other hand, this letter may be received differently because there is now greater momentum on climate-related law enforcement than in 2016. Representative Lieu’s 2016 letter had only three signatories; his 2023 letter has 20.
The DOJ has recently expressed a greater willingness to act on sustainability issues, as evidenced by the formation of the TIMBER Enforcement Working Group to combat illegal timber trafficking. This would also be consistent with DOJ’s stated goal in its 2022-2026 Strategic Plan “to prioritize enforcement actions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, achieve emissions reductions and relief that mitigate the impact of past violations, and to hold violators accountable for their environmental crimes. »
Outside the United States, the allegations in the letter are similar to a suit filed this year in Italian courts by Greenpeace Italy, ReCommon and 12 Italian citizens against oil major ENI SpA, accusing the company of knowing that fossil fuels would harm the climate.