Warren’s “Fighting Corporate Perjury” plan would allow corporate officers to be held criminally liable for providing false or misleading information to regulatory agencies. Photo credit: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren called for companies that deliberately mislead federal regulators to be prosecuted under a new corporate perjury law, according to a plan she released Tuesday, using Exxon as an example. 

Warren’s “Fighting Corporate Perjury” plan would allow corporate officers to be held criminally liable for providing false or misleading information, including by using industry-funded studies, to regulatory agencies. The plan also would prohibit the use of non-peer-reviewed studies that are found to have a conflict of interest in federal rulemaking and related court challenges. She called for the creation of a new Office of the Public Advocate, which would help the public participate in regulatory and legal proceedings. 

Warren’s latest plan, part of her broader campaign pledge to end corruption, calls out fossil fuel companies for their “decades-long campaign to cover up these [climate] facts and deceive government regulators and the American people.” It notes Exxon’s record of funding climate denial and promoting and publishing discredited science, including in an official regulatory comment to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 claiming that climate change effects on public welfare were “almost non-existent.” Warren’s plan would crack down on this kind of misinformation in a bold new way, by subjecting corporations to liability for lying to regulators. Potential penalties could include up to a quarter of a million dollars in fines or even jail time.  

“My plan to End Washington Corruption prevents companies like Exxon from using industry-funded fake research to mislead federal regulators,” Warren wrote. “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.” 

Misleading regulatory agencies currently carries no legal consequences, Warren said. “It is illegal to lie to Congress. It is illegal to lie to a court. It’s even illegal to lie to your shareholders,” she wrote. “But corporate interests are regularly and knowingly peddling false claims in order to stop regulatory agencies from acting in the public interest.”

Exxon is currently embroiled in multiple lawsuits alleging the company misled its shareholders on how it discloses climate risks and deals with potential regulations on carbon-based fuels. New York sued Exxon for alleged climate fraud and is awaiting a verdict from New York Supreme Court Judge Barry Ostrager.

A congressional subcommittee recently held a held a hearing on the oil industry’s suppression of climate science. During that hearing, the former Department of Justice prosecutor in the federal tobacco litigation, Sharon Eubanks, said that the oil industry’s deception campaign that targeted the public and Congress could constitute “actionable fraud,” while the lone GOP witness claimed during her testimony that the impacts of climate change were “mild and manageable.” Another witness, Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, called that claim “demonstrably untrue.” 

Far from being “mild and manageable,” climate impacts like deadly heat waves, more destructive wildfires, and worsening storms and flooding “are putting lives at risk,” Warren wrote. “Exxon knew about the risks of climate change decades ago. But their response to discovering the truth was to do everything possible to hide it from the world for as long as possible.” 

Warren is now vowing to put an end to that kind of deception with her plan to “hold bad actors accountable.” 

“The fossil fuel industry has been – and continues to be – a bad actor in global warming politics,” said Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard research associate who studies fossil fuel industry misinformation. “This policy pledge is a powerful step towards neutralizing Big Oil’s ability to target and undermine science-based decision-making.

“The timing of this announcement is poetic in that it comes as the Trump administration, at the long-time behest of Big Oil and Big Tobacco, is reportedly moving to ban the best scientific information from informing public health policy,” Supran said, referring to an attempt by the EPA to limit the use of science in public health regulations. 

Warren’s announcement, Supran said, is “precisely the kind of approach to the climate crisis that we need more of from politicians: To see the climate crisis not as a niche ‘environmental’ issue, but as an issue of corporate capture and corruption of American politics that is jeopardizing the public’s chances of a just and stable future.” 

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