Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is taking on big oil’s legacy of climate misinformation in her latest presidential plan, proposing to punish companies that knowingly mislead or lie to federal agencies with steep fines and jail time.
Warren’s plan has at least one visible target: ExxonMobil. The oil giant’s own scientists confirmed in the 1970s and ‘80s that fossil fuels have contributed to global warming. Then the company shuttered its climate research and embraced a public relations campaign to spread doubt about climate science and fund climate change denial.
“My plan to End Washington Corruption prevents companies like Exxon from using industry-funded fake research to mislead federal regulators,” Warren wrote in a new plan released on Tuesday morning. “And if bad actors like Exxon break the rules and deliberately lie to government agencies, my plan will treat them the same way the law treats someone who lies in court – by subjecting them to potential prosecution for perjury.”
Warren’s latest plan formally merges her climate agenda with her anti-corruption proposals, which have been the centerpiece of her presidential campaign. She has already proposed spending at least $3 trillion on climate action, including banning fossil fuel development on public lands, tackling environmental justice as part of the Green New Deal, and embracing many of former presidential candidate Jay Inslee’s ideas for cutting climate pollution in the building, transportation, and electricity sectors.
Warren’s attack on Exxon comes on the heels of recent Congressional hearings digging into the company’s sketchy climate history. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most high-profile progressives in Congress, repeatedly grilled former Exxon scientists about their climate work. And the New York Attorney General recently took Exxon to trial, alleging the company misled investors about its climate risk; the New York Supreme Court has not yet issued a verdict in the case. Last month, the Massachusetts Attorney General sued Exxon for misleading both investors and consumers about climate change.
Exxon declined to comment on Warren's plan. Instead Scott Silvestri, a company spokesman, outlined Exxon's past funding of climate work, how its scientists have participated in global climate assessments and have produced nearly 150 papers on the subject. The company's website, meanwhile, refers to the climate attacks as "an orchestrated campaign that seeks to delegitimize ExxonMobil and misinterpret our climate change position and research."
Under the plan, Warren proposes creating a new “corporate perjury” law to hold companies accountable for submitting misinformation to federal regulators, such as in the public comment period for a new rulemaking. Companies that violate the law could face criminal liability, resulting in upwards of $250,000 in fines or jail time for the people who submitted the deceitful information.
She also recommends banning “federal agencies and courts from considering non-peer-reviewed, industry-funded research.” So if a company submits research for proposed rulemaking, it would have to disclose how it was funded, whether the funders influenced the research, and detail the relationship between funders and researchers. Research with conflict of interest would likely be excluded from the rulemaking, as well as from any future court challenges to that rule.
Warren proposes creating a national Office of the Public Advocate to make it easier for the public to engage in the federal rulemaking process.
This story has been updated to include a response from Exxon.