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U.S. Senate hearing looks at fossil fuel dark money

A Senate panel scrutinized the flood of money in politics. Experts say fossil fuel dark money continues to slow climate action.

United States Senate committee hearing room (Photo credit: Adobe Stock/Katherine Welles)

The Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on June 21, investigating the fossil fuel dark money behind the oil and gas industry’s efforts to head off climate action.

“We are here today because fossil fuel-funded climate disinformation and obstruction is directly causing systemic financial risks to the economy and to the federal budget,” Senate Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said at the hearing.

The oil industry was aware of climate change as early as the 1950s, Senator Whitehouse noted in his opening statement. In 1977, an Exxon senior scientist warned the company’s management that “there is general scientific agreement” the burning of fossil fuels was influencing the climate. However, the company went on to obscure and mislead the public for decades, funding misleading science and front groups that spread misinformation.

At this point, much of this history is well-documented. But it is becoming a growing legal risk for Exxon and other major oil companies. In fact, a county in Oregon just filed a major lawsuit against more than a dozen large oil companies and their trade associations, a case that relies heavily on the industry’s extensive knowledge of climate change that dates back to the mid-20th Century.

The experts at the Senate hearing said that the enormous sums of money in politics, which flows through a network of opaque front groups and lobbying outfits, continues to prevent meaningful climate action.

“Money corrupts our government. This is not a partisan issue. It was bad when I was in the Bush White House. I saw the influence of campaign contributors in both political parties,” said Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the chief ethics lawyer for the White House during the George W. Bush administration between 2005 and 2007. “The flood of money into both political parties is destroying our democracy. And yes, is making it much harder to fight climate change.”

Christine Arena, a former vice president at PR giant Edelman, drew comparisons between the extensive efforts on the part of the tobacco industry to spread disinformation about the harms of cigarettes to the ongoing campaign by the fossil fuel industry to deflect responsibility for its role in fueling the climate crisis.

“We see similar marketing tactics and a similar denial approach. Attacking the science, then questioning the science, then hiring their own experts and then really taking advantage of market opportunities,” Arena said.

Republicans attacked the logic of the hearing, accusing climate groups for their own use of dark money. “Democrats accuse those they disagree with of wrongdoing,” Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley said.

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and an expert in the history of oil industry disinformation, said the fossil fuel industry’s greenwashing continues up through the present. Oil and gas companies create elaborate marketing campaigns to promote their relatively small investments in clean energy.

“It is true that ExxonMobil, Chevron and other oil and gas companies have sometimes spent small amounts of money on renewable energy. Most estimates show that it is less than 2 percent. But in their advertisements, they are often very much focused on renewable energy even though 98 percent of their commitment is the continued development of oil and gas,” Oreskes said.

“We’ve lost 30 years. That’s a long time,” she said. “If we had started working seriously on this problem at that time, we could have developed many of the large-scale energy infrastructures — for solar, for wind, for storage, for demand response pricing — many of the solutions that we know work.”