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Senators Hold Oil Companies Responsible for Climate Change

March 27, 2019, 8:00 AM HST (Updated March 27, 2019, 7:54 AM)
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Six Democratic senators have filed a brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the case of Oakland v. BP, arguing that major oil companies and producers have interfered and blocked action in Congress on climate change.

Sens. Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawai‘i), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) filed the brief.

These oil companies’ “Pollyannaish paean to our separated powers ignores both the collective effect of the millions of dollars these same [companies] have spent to ensure political gridlock and international inaction, and the ‘virtually unflagging obligation of the federal courts to exercise the jurisdiction given them,” the senators wrote. “Following their argument would effectively reward their multi-million dollar campaign of deception and obstruction… Given that this court possesses these ‘broad’ and ‘flexible’ equitable powers, an outcome that accepts [these oil companies’] separation of powers argument at face value and thereby rewards their campaign to prevent Congress, the executive agencies, and international fora from addressing climate change, would not be consistent with the public interest or the full justice [the cities] deserve.”

The senators filed their brief in response to a case brought by the California cities of Oakland and San Francisco seeking to hold major oil companies responsible for the cost of projects like safeguarding coastlines from flooding due to climate change-driven sea level rise.

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In their brief, the senators cited the decades-long influence campaign carried out by the oil industry to sow public doubt about the scientific basis and severity of climate change, and to block any action by Congress or the executive branch to combat carbon pollution.

The senators also noted the record sums that the oil company defendants spent to lobby against federal legislation to combat climate change:

  • BP’s federal lobbying jumped from $10.45 million in 2008 to $16 million in 2009, the most it ever spent on federal lobbying during a single year.
  • Chevron’s federal lobbying jumped from $13 million in 2008 to $21 million in 2009, also a record.
  • ConocoPhillips’ federal lobbying spending more than doubled from $8.5 million in 2008 to more than $18 million in 2009.
  • Shell more than doubled its lobbying spending from $4.5 million in 2008 to $10.2 million in 2009.

In addition to extensive lobbying efforts by the oil industry, the senators highlighted the corrosive effect of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

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In Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that political spending is a form of free speech that’s protected under the First Amendment. The controversial 5-4 decision effectively opened the door for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to support their chosen political candidates, provided they were technically independent of the campaigns themselves.

The senators expressed their concern that, since Citizens United, Congress has continued to move in the wrong direction when confronting climate change, and has even unwound important environmental protections that limit the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

A copy of the Senators’ full brief is available here.

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