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Democrats re-launch ‘Exxon Knew’ campaign to allege Big Oil deceived public about climate change

Critics of this campaign argue that the Democrats behind the investigation are trying to vilify oil companies by misleading the public into thinking that the companies possessed some special knowledge that wasn’t publicly available about the impact of emissions on climate.

Published: May 1, 2024 11:03pm

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., released a joint staff report from a nearly three-year investigation into internal discussions at oil companies and industry groups.

According to the report, the oil companies were aware as early as the 1960's that emissions impacted climate, but because internal discussions show there was disagreement over the level of risk those impacts posed and the companies continued producing fossil fuels, the companies deceived the public about these risks. This purported deception, according to the report, has delayed addressing climate change.

Critics of this campaign argue that the Democrats behind it are trying to vilify oil companies by misleading the public into thinking that the companies possessed some special knowledge that wasn’t publicly available about the impact of emissions on climate. The internal uncertainty and debate, critics argue, wasn’t a conspiracy to deceive the public, but rather a reflection of the uncertainties inherent within climate research.

“It’s all about power. It’s not about getting rid of fossil fuels, because in the end, when we’re a communist nation, we’re still going to need fossil fuels,” Steve Milloy, a senior legal fellow with the Energy and Environmental Legal Institute and publisher of, told Just The News.

Inside Climate News claimed in 2015 that Exxon knew about a "possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect" as far back as July 1977. Then-ExxonMobil spokesman Richard D. Keil said at the time that “from the time that climate change first emerged as a topic for scientific study and analysis in the late 1970s, ExxonMobil has committed itself to scientific, fact-based analysis of this important issue.”

Deadly real

The Senate Budget Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the investigation, which is a sequel to three hearings on the same issue that were held between 2019 and 2023.

In 2021, the Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., then-chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, subpoenaed documents from ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Three million documents were provided to those subpoenas, and the first two million were previously reviewed. Wednesday’s hearing was to discuss the review of the last 1 million of the documents.

In his opening statements, Whitehouse blamed climate change for “economic shocks,” which he said we’re already seeing in “grocery store aisles,” as a result of disruptions in agriculture and shipping. He said we’re experiencing “unprecedented storm and wildfire damage,” which is causing an “economic shock from collapsing insurance markets.”

“I believe that economic danger is deadly real,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse didn’t explain exactly how climate change was disrupting shipping, and just about every major crop grown in the U.S. has seen yield increases in the past two decades.

Dr. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has done extensive research into the costs of disasters in the U.S. and his research consistently finds that the trend, when those costs are adjusted for changes in wealth over time, are actually declining.

In a video shown after Whitehouse’s opening statements, Whitehouse and Raskin argue that oil companies were publicly expressing support for the Paris Agreement, which was a 2015 international agreement to limit emissions so as not to exceed 1.5 degrees celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels. Internal communications, however, according to Raskin and Whitehouse, show that the companies were making those goals unachievable.

One piece of evidence the lawmakers presented to support that accusation is that, after spending $425 million, Shell canceled a program to develop energy from algae. An email showed one employee involved in the project saying the project wasn’t “ready to go to a large-scale demo.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said that Democrats gave Republicans on the committee only two days to read thousands of the documents that were released in the report. He called it a “partisan investigation” and said there was nothing new that came out of the review of the last million documents.

Big Tobacco playbook

Sharon Eubanks, former director of the tobacco litigation team at the Department of Justice, and Dr. Geoffrey Supran, associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami, testified that oil companies misled the public about the health impacts of petroleum products in the same way tobacco companies had misled the public about the health impacts of using tobacco. As such, they argued, litigation against oil companies should be pursued in the same way it had been pursued against tobacco companies.

“The fossil fuel industry devised a PR strategy straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, to weaponize science against itself,” Supran said.

Supran was lead author on a study published last year in Science that argued that ExxonMobil tried to convince the public that the link between fossil fuel use and climate warming could not be made because the models are too uncertain, which she claims contradicted their own internal models.

In a thread on X, Pielke pointed out that these internal models were projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a consortium of the world’s leading climate researchers. One Exxon employee was a contributing author. These projections that Supran presented as coming from Exxon also included Department of Energy documents. Pielke also showed that these projections turned out not to be entirely accurate.

Neither Eubanks or Supran explained how tobacco, a product that’s consumed for its stimulant effects without which no one would die, compares to a product that provides approximately 80% of the world’s energy and is the basis for hundreds of products — everything from plastics that prevent food spoilage to pharmaceuticals.

Robert Rapier, an energy expert and editor in chief of Shale Magazine, told Just The News, that the comparison also assumes that there would be a net benefit if oil and gas companies ceased operations.

“That line of reasoning is premised on the assumption that if they eliminated the product that everyone was willingly purchasing, that there would be something else to take its place. There is no evidence that this would have been the case. The reality of the situation would be this: If the oil majors stopped producing oil, oil prices would skyrocket. People would still buy oil, but they would get it from OPEC and Russia, enriching those nations,” Rapier said.

In an interview in March, Rapier explained that it’s a lot to expect that tentative research on the potential impacts of carbon dioxide emissions decades ago should have resulted in significant shifts in energy policy. He also said, as someone who worked in the industry, not everyone in these large companies was aware of the research, and there was a lot of debate about the findings, a debate that continues today.

Wishful thinking

Dr. Ariel Cohen, senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, testified at Wednesday’s hearing that Germany’s aggressive anti-fossil fuel policies will end up costing that nation $1.07 trillion by 2030, and has resulted in high energy costs, high taxes, low industrial competitiveness, and slow economic growth.

He said if the U.S. were to “miraculously” transition entirely to renewable energy today, it would require “massive amounts of energy storage.”

“We don’t have it. The amount of energy storage today in the United States is 43 minutes. Not hours. Not weeks. 43 minutes. As opposed to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which when full, has enough oil for 90 days,” Cohen said.

According to Cohen’s submitted testimony, to power the U.S. for a single day with lithium-ion batteries would cost roughly $3.7 trillion per day. To match the storage capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve with batteries, the cost of operation for that 90-day period would be $333 trillion. Those costs don’t include the expense of producing and installing the battery facilities.

“The people promoting this argument imagine that if only the oil companies had switched to something else, we would have been able to run our economy on that ‘something else.’ It's entirely wishful thinking,” Rapier said.

The first installment of the “Exxon knew” investigation didn’t produce the results the Democrats involved in it were hoping for. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told E&E News in 2022 that the sky-high gas prices in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were making it hard for them to “break through immediately to the public.”

Whether this sequel to that earlier investigation will produce the results Democrats are hoping for remains to be seen. Whitehouse hinted that it’s not the Democrat's last effort. The documents that were given in response to the subpoena were heavily redacted. Whitehouse said he was looking forward to plowing “through these redactions and multiple instances of non-compliance so that Congress can actually get to the bottom of this."

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