Buening: Fossil Fuel Corporations Subvert Democracy


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By Sarah Buening, Assistant Opinion Editor


On Oct. 28, 2021, executives from four major oil companies appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Under oath and before Congress, the leaders of ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and BP were confronted about their industry’s denial of the climate crisis.

The first-of-its-kind hearing marked a milestone for environmental progress. As Rep. Ro Khanna explained, “In the history of Congress, the fossil fuel executives have never come before the committee … to explain climate disinformation and address the climate crisis.”

Holding fossil fuel corporations accountable for their role in fueling the climate crisis is long overdue. But in typical, big oil fashion, no oath could keep the major executives from continuing to lie. Instead of accepting climate accountability, each oil representative outrightly denied spreading disinformation on climate change. That could not be farther from the truth.

Despite supposedly being “for the people, by the people,” our government doesn’t work towards our best interests. Fossil fuel corporations have purposefully subverted democracy to ensure that our infrastructure caters to their interests. If we hope to see any substantial climate progress, we need to remove power from the grip of corporate America.

Long History of Corruption

Big Oil corruption is not new. From as early as 1959, scientists have warned the fossil fuel industry about global warming. The American Petroleum Institute — an industry lobby that has opposed climate change initiatives for decades — has been acutely aware of their environmental impact since 1968. Memos from ExxonMobil and Shell exposed that each have possessed scientific knowledge about fossil fuel emissions since at least the 1980s.

And yet, no other industry has as adamantly objected to climate reform. Their motive is clear. Chasing profits inherently outweighs sustainability in our capitalist society. But given their sizable resources, fossil fuel industries have more than enough means to prevent significant change.

To stand in the way of environmental reforms that would challenge their economic growth, fossil fuel industries have deliberately spread misinformation. They utilize several manipulative strategies, including blatant anti-science propaganda. For instance, ExxonMobil advertising in the New York Times called climate science “unsettled.” Despite the evidence, Exxon’s current CEO went so far as to say, “I do not agree that there was an inconsistency,” when questioned about his company’s misleading advertising practices.

Critics have compared the oil executives’ lies to a similar congressional hearing that took place in 1994. Back then, tobacco companies denied knowing that nicotine was addictive. Again, under oath. Now, big corporate executives have shown that they remain capable of that corruption.

As transparent as their efforts are, fossil fuel corporations still manage to mislead portions of the public. The U.S. has become a “hotbed of climate change denial.” False scientific claims go beyond opposing sustainable legislation. They create a rift in public perception, pitting citizens against each other over scientific truth. As long as people look to these corporations — and the public representatives that they control — as “authorities,” they will continue to buy into their propaganda.

Shady Dealings

Fossil fuel corporations have succeeded in fueling climate denial and inaction by utilizing several different techniques. One is their constant greenwashing via advertisements and mission statements. The American Petroleum Institute’s site even includes a “Climate Action Framework” tab, claiming support for a lower-carbon future. Meanwhile, their actions ensure a prolonged dependency on fossil fuels.

But more drastically, fossil fuels have secured their influence within government. Several months before this landmark congressional hearing, a Greenpeace sting operation secretly recorded a Zoom call with an Exxon lobbyist. Through this operation, Greenpeace secured concrete evidence of governmental interference from ExxonMobil. Keith McCoy, the lobbyist in question, talked openly about “efforts to blunt the Biden administration’s climate agenda on behalf of the nation’s largest oil and gas company.”

Interferences such as these largely influence infrastructure packages, and perhaps explain why 2021’s bipartisan infrastructure bill included $25 billion in subsidies for fossil fuels. Questioning from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also exposed that Exxon’s CEO interfered with the reconciliation and infrastructure process by participating in personal calls with lawmakers on the Democrats’ spending plan.

Regardless of whether or not political donations were discussed verbatim in said calls, political donations from fossil fuels corrupt democratic processes. In the 2020 midterm election cycle, the fossil fuel industry paid at least $359 million in campaign donations and lobbying. Such a corrupt industry has no place within the democratic system. Fossil fuel donations should not be a viable form of campaign financing any longer. By making representatives reliant on their financial contributions, they tip the scales in their favor. This disgusts the very meaning of democracy.


A democracy becomes subverted when certain groups are given higher precedence than others. This is America today. An intensive study from Princeton and Northwestern University proved that our policies reflect the interests of the wealthy and interest groups more than our citizens.

Fossil fuel corporations have amassed absurd levels of wealth. U.S. oil and gas industry revenues in 2020 amounted to about $110.7 billion. Using their substantial funds, they’ve become able to usurp democratic authority. The industry has shown this as they’ve antagonized climate change “alarmists” and funded front groups and “faux-research” to dissuade people from taking action.

Certain self-interested politicians have made habit of claiming incomplete knowledge as an excuse for past climate denials. It’s about time they stop playing dumb. Climate change is established by science. That shouldn’t have to be disputed. Bickering over its soundness serves to postpone climate action. In doing so, we play right into the hands of fossil fuel corporations. We cannot afford more wasted time. Under these conditions, we must refuse supporting representatives that downplay or deny climate urgency.

The fossil fuel industry is dirty in more ways than its impact on the environment. To preserve our democracy, we must hold them accountable for their deliberate, scheming and harmful tactics.


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