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Recently, the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability – along with the Senate Committee on the Budget – released a report investigating Big Oil and its attempts to misrepresent the effects of burning fossil fuels on the environment. The report is filled with allegations that Big Oil led a decades-long campaign to deceive the public by denying climate science and lobbying against climate action. Following the report, the Senate Committee held a hearing on the matter and invited former federal prosecutor Sharon Eubanks. Eubanks led the government in RICO proceedings against Big Tobacco in the mid-2000s. According to reporting from The Hill, Eubanks believes that similar litigation could be successful against Big Oil:

“In written and spoken testimony, Eubanks argued that the government’s litigation against the tobacco industry offered a road map for addressing the fossil fuel industry’s long history of public advocacy against climate science. Like cigarette companies, she said, fossil fuel majors have been critical of the science regarding their industry’s harms while arguing against efforts to regulate it — even as their own internal documents appear to show that they understood their primary products were heating the planet.”

The idea of bringing racketeering charges under RICO may surprise some, but Puerto Rico is already experimenting with the legal theory in its lawsuit against major oil companies. The fact that this theory has now been raised in front of Congress may be a sign that it is becoming more mainstream. The similarities between Big Oil’s conduct and what put Big Tobacco in the nation’s crosshairs have been discussed before, including by us. As climate litigation moves through courts, it seems inevitable that some plaintiffs will win big against Big Oil. It’s just a matter of who, how, and when.

Companies that have historically been large emitters are caught in a difficult spot, especially if they’ve previously reported on climate issues or emissions. An about face now could be interpreted as an admission to the same behavior of which Big Oil is accused, but maintaining the current direction is potentially even more risky. The best path forward is to carefully evaluate all climate messaging in this current light and work to make a good faith effort to transition to net zero while preparing to defend past reporting and disclosures on climate impacts. However, some appear to be considering fighting to the bitter end, shovel in hand.

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The Editor

Zachary Barlow is a licensed attorney. He earned his JD from the University of Mississippi and has a bachelor’s in Public Policy Leadership. He practiced law at a mid-size firm and handled a wide variety of cases. During this time he assisted in overseeing compliance of a public entity and litigated contract disputes, gaining experience both in and outside of the courtroom. Zachary currently assists the editorial team by providing research and creating content on a spectrum of ESG… View Profile