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Democrats say Big Oil misled public for decades about climate change

A new report released Tuesday details how oil companies knew the consequences of their emissions since at least the 1960s.
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Major oil companies have misled Americans for decades about the threat of human-caused climate change, according to a new report released Tuesday by Democrats in Congress. 

The 65-page report was the result of a three-year investigation and was made public hours before a Senate Budget Committee hearing about the role that oil and gas companies have played in global warming.

“They could’ve been the environmental Paul Revere but, instead, they were more like Rip Van Winkle, wanting everyone to go to sleep,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said about fossil fuel companies’ efforts to mislead and distract the American public for more than 60 years. “The thing that gets me the most is thinking back to the decades when ‘Big Oil and Gas’ understood the problem in a way almost no one in the country or the world did.”

Democrats’ investigation revealed research, transcripts and even video recordings that show the fossil fuel industry knew the consequences of its emissions since at least the 1960s. Their report also showed how oil and gas companies initially tried to hide that information but employed new tactics to downplay the urgency of eliminating emissions.

The Phillips 66 Los Angeles Refinery Wilmington Plant stands in Wilmington, Calif., on Nov. 28, 2022.
The Phillips 66 Los Angeles Refinery Wilmington Plant in Wilmington, Calif., on Nov. 28, 2022.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Geoffrey Supran, an associate professor and director of the Climate Accountability Lab at the University of Miami, researches climate disinformation and propaganda from the fossil fuel industry. He said that oil and gas companies’ claims of decarbonizing are just their latest strategy to delay climate action. 

“Putting spin before science continues at oil companies to this day,” he said of his research into the tactics of the industry.

“This is greenwashing 101,” Supran added. “Talk green, act dirty.”

Senate Republicans called the hearing purely partisan and attempted to refocus the discussion on the financial cost of rapidly transitioning away from oil and gas. 

“We spend all this money, and we don’t lower global temperatures one scintilla of a degree,” said Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, one of the top oil and gas producing states in the U.S.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), a major lobbying group for the industry, was repeatedly blamed in the report and Senate hearing for helping oil and gas companies hide the truth about climate change. According to Senate Democrats, API both advised fossil fuel companies on public relations strategies, while also acting as a scapegoat for congressional scrutiny.

In a statement to NBC News, an API spokesperson said, “At a time of persistent inflation and geopolitical instability, our nation needs more American energy — including more oil and natural gas — and less unfounded election year rhetoric. America’s energy workers are focused on delivering the reliable, affordable oil and natural gas Americans demand while scaling the next generation of low-carbon technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture, and any suggestion to the contrary is inaccurate.” 

Democrats reiterated that oil and gas companies have damaged the planet for decades without having to pay for the consequences. That led Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to ask what happens next. 

“If we have an industry that knowingly, and that’s the point … knowingly understood that climate change would bring devastating destruction to the lives of billions of people, what are the legal grounds we can hold them accountable for?” he said.