The Last Word: Oil Companies or Climate Champions?

Climate change and budgets? This month, the Senate Budget Committee, led by climate champion, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), skillfully showed how a hearing on what oil companies do with their huge profits could expose the fossil fuel industry’s long-running and expensive disinformation campaigns about their impact on climate.

The title of the hearing, “Denial, Disinformation, and Doublespeak: Big Oil’s Evolving Efforts to Avoid Accountability for Climate Change” puts it plainly and powerfully. And, it indicates the fervor with which Committee Chair Whitehouse and ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD-8) — two of the most brilliant members of Congress — skewered the industry’s duplicity.  You can see what truly effective watchdogs are like in this short video posted by the Senate Budget Committee. (Or, you can watch the entire livestreamed hearing here.)

The visible anger of Whitehouse and Raskin at the industry makes perfect sense when you think about the role of Big Oil not only in exacerbating global climate change, but in obscuring and deceiving the public about their doing it. In the joint report released by the Senate Budget Committee and the House Oversight Committee last month, authors found that the industry utilized a litany of creative methods to lie and dissuade policymakers from action.


After three years of investigation by the Oversight Committee, the report, with the same title as the hearing, found:

  • Proof of fossil fuel companies’ recognition of their understanding of the connection between fossil fuel combustion and climate change since as early as the 1960s and subsequent efforts to obscure this connection to the public.
  • The industry’s campaign of misleading the public about climate change and the contributions to greenhouse gas emissions by their operations transitioned into one of complete deception, disinformation, and doublespeak. Prongs of this revamped campaign include: promoting the idea that natural gas can be used as a “bridge fuel” between “dirtier” fossil fuels, oil and coal, and renewable energy; claiming to support the Paris Agreement and then undermining policies that would allow the US to abide by its terms; lobbying against pro-climate legislation privately after publicly expressing support for it; promoting “alternatives” to fossil fuel investment, such as investment in nature-based solutions and carbon capture and storage, while concealing their constraints and then underinvesting in them.
  • The oil industry partners with and invests in trade associations and universities respectively, to send dishonest messages. Trade associations and other organizations disseminate narratives on behalf of the industry that mislead the public and lawmakers into supporting pro-fossil fuel policy. They sponsor institutes and programs at universities to build their credibility and then threaten to withhold their financial support if these beneficiaries do not support their business through their research and academics.
  • The six subjects of the investigation, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, API, and the Chamber of Commerce, all impeded the investigation by delaying their cooperation and/or refusing to provide complete evidence.


While pro-environment Democrats led the hearing, allies of the exposed industry didn’t miss the chance to dig up age-old industry rhetoric. The Budget Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-IA) claimed that the combustion of fossil fuels is still essential to national energy security and disparaged his Democratic counterparts for their “unpopular” emissions reduction proposals. Even in a hearing disclosing the joint report’s 60-plus pages of proof of Big Oil and industry executives’ lies, ruthless profit motive, and disregard for the catastrophe their operations have caused for the climate, Republicans in Congress still go to bat for their friends – and donors – in the fossil fuel industry. Every. Single. Time.

But the industry’s collaborators did not steal the show: climate champions did. Democratic members of both committees, including Sen. Whitehouse, Rep. Raskin, and Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered scathing testimonies. While the fossil fuel executives have gotten away until now with deliberately misleading and obscure messaging about their knowledge, motives, and contributions to the climate crisis, the message from climate hawks was crystal clear: denial, lying, and greenwashing come at a price. And, it is the industry that is going to foot the bill.

Identifying and penalizing climate disinformation has never been more critical than right now. Scientists agree that 2023 was the hottest year on record. We are on the brink of other major climate tipping point events, such as unprecedented sea-level rise, heatwaves, wildfires, flooding, ocean temperatures, and glacial retreat. The oil industry’s influence over policymakers and convincing the public of their blamelessness, or even benevolence in some cases, is a good part of the reason we’re on the brink.

The good news is that environmentalists have strong and outspoken allies in Congress who are not alone in calling out greenwashing, deception, and taking big polluters to task. The RCC’s 2023 Greenwashing report, for example, draws on and grows out of the actions, investigations, and work of many organizations, journalists, scholars, and activists. It lays out in depth the wood pellet biomass industry’s pernicious threats to environmental justice communities, ecosystem stability, and the climate. While wood pellets are not a fossil fuel, the corporate leaders of energy giants Drax and Enviva have also enjoyed exorbitant profits based on tax breaks, credits, and subsidies for their business of environmentally irresponsible extraction and flagrant pollution in vulnerable communities. The Rachel Carson Council will continue to call out bad actors in both the fossil fuel and biomass industries and push our policymakers to choose real climate solutions over dangerous stagnation.

With the support and action of RCC supporters like you, the advocacy of the RCC and our allied environmental organizations, and with principled and powerful elected officials like Sen. Whitehouse and Rep. Raskin who are in the vanguard of the climate justice movement, we will never again let corporate polluters have the last word.

Claudia Steiner — Director of Communications and Development

An environmental advocate around the clock, Claudia serves as the Director for Communications and Strategic Development at the Rachel Carson Council. She is a graduate of the American University where she studied International Studies and Environmental Science.