Vermont sues Big Oil; House panel asks CEOs to testify

Fossil fuel executives are inching closer to the hot seat.

Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.

Lake Willoughby, Vermont, on Friday. Photo Credit: Emily Sanders

From Congress to the courts, last week ushered in new efforts to hold oil and gas industry executives accountable for their campaigns to deceive the public and delay climate policy — which continue to this day.

On Tuesday, the state of Vermont sued some of the biggest culprits in climate deception, including ExxonMobil, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute, for lying to Vermont consumers about the dangers they knew their products would cause. And on Thursday, the House Oversight Committee expanded its probe into climate disinformation, calling on executives from the world’s largest fossil fuel companies and trade organizations to testify in front of Congress. 

We are, as always, here with the highlights.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan is now the seventh AG to file a lawsuit against oil giants for misleading the public about the climate catastrophe they knew their products would cause.

The Green Mountain State suffers from a growing swath of dangerous climate impacts: flooding and erosion that threaten its food systems, housing, jobs and infrastructure; warming temperatures that damage ecosystems and deplete the state’s recreation and tourism economies; and deadly storms and precipitation events like Hurricane Irene, which flooded homes and caused over $700 million in damages to Vermont’s roads and bridges alone.

But unlike some other climate liability lawsuits that seek to recover such costs, Vermont’s lawsuit is narrowly focused on enforcing the state’s Consumer Protection Act, which requires that companies “sell their products to Vermont consumers on the basis of fair and honest disclosures, free of unfair and deceptive acts and practices.” Donovan, the state’s highest law enforcement official, says oil companies broke that law over the course of decades and continue to do so today.

“What we are saying is that Vermonters have the right to know,” Donovan said at a press conference announcing the suit. “Give Vermonters accurate information. Put a label on the product and let Vermonters decide.”

The complaint asks a Vermont state court to prohibit the companies from carrying out further deception, as well as to force them to disgorge profits they gained while lying to consumers, among other remedies.

“The record is very clear that [the oil companies] have been deceptive, and they continue, frankly, with greenwashing and lobbying against [President] Biden’s [climate] plan, for example,” said Pat Parenteau, professor of law and counsel at Vermont Law School’s environmental clinic. “It’s not like it’s in the past, as they like to portray — all that is still going on, so these cases are incredibly relevant.” 

Powerful House members are calling on Big Oil executives to fess up in front of Congress.

On Thursday, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Ro Khanna sent letters to the heads of ExxonMobil, BP America, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, asking them to testify at a congressional hearing on climate disinformation on October 28 — as well as provide key internal documents going back to 2015.

“We are deeply concerned that the fossil fuel industry has reaped massive profits for decades while contributing to climate change that is devastating American communities, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and ravaging the natural world,” reads the letter to Exxon CEO Darren Woods.

"We are also concerned that to protect those profits, the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change.”

The letters come after a tumultuous summer for Exxon, during which the company’s senior federal lobbyist, Keith McCoy, admitted on tape that the company has used “shadow groups” to undermine climate science and lobby against government action, and that the company only publicly supported a carbon tax because it would never pass and was a good “talking point.”

The duplicitous behavior McCoy described continues today: as reported by the Washington Post, Exxon and other fossil fuel interests are helping to lead a “massive lobbying blitz” against pieces of President Biden’s infrastructure bill.

That’s a big reason why members of Congress are now calling on more CEOs to testify, tobacco-industry style, about their companies’ ongoing lobbying and lies. “Part of the timing of this is to make sure that they know they’re under a magnifying glass when it comes to any engagement, and running interference, with the climate agenda of Congress and the Senate,” Rep. Khanna told the New York Times.

The Big Oil executives have until Thursday to accept the invitation to appear before the committee on October 28. If they refuse to testify, Khanna has said that he would consider issuing subpoenas. 

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