Ted Lieu Sees Prosecution of Fossil Fuel Companies Ahead Over Climate Denial

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By Anthony Adragna

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) just arrived in the House in 2015 but has already been outspoken in urging the federal government to investigate whether fossil fuel companies intentionally hid the truth about the risks of climate change. In a Feb. 26 interview with Bloomberg BNA reporter Anthony Adragna, Lieu said he was “confident” the Department of Justice would ultimately investigate companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Shell Oil Co. He also predicted there was a “very high likelihood” a number of companies would eventually be charged for obstructing climate change action. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Bloomberg BNA:

You've replaced former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), one of the leading environmental champions in Congress and one of the biggest advocates of climate change action, in Congress. Does his record on the environment guide, in some way, your own activities or are you focused on forging your own course?

Ted Lieu:

His legacy absolutely guides me, and part of the reason is [climate action] is what my constituents expect. I have a district that is along the coast. It also has mountains. It has air quality issues. So the constituents are very aware of the environment. But it's also something that I've been passionate about for a number of years. I'm very fond of this Native American quote that says, ‘you don't inherit the Earth from your ancestors, you borrow it from your children.’ I have two children ages 10 and 12, and I want them to have an environment that is the same as or better than what we have now. And I certainly wouldn't want it to be worse.

To me, the environment is one of the areas where if you degrade it, it's very hard to put it back together.

Bloomberg BNA:

What do you see as the proper role for the federal government in responding to the Aliso Canyon methane leak that's been going on in California?

Lieu:

I'm pleased they have now managed to cap and stop the leak. I think the federal government can certainly provide investigative assistance to try to figure out what went so horribly wrong. I know Senator Boxer (D-Calif.) is working on legislation to have a panel of experts look specifically at this issue.

I don't know enough about the technical details as to why the leak couldn't have been stopped far sooner than it was.

Bloomberg BNA:

You've obviously been very active in trying to push the federal government to investigate major fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Shell Oil Co. over alleged denial of climate change. How do you see that playing out in this administration?

Lieu:

I'm very pleased that after Congressman DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) and I sent letters to the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission, we now have the New York attorney general saying he's launching an investigation into Exxon. There are reports the California attorney general is doing same, and then recently it appears the Maryland attorney general is going to do that as well.

I'm confident the U.S. Department of Justice will also do an investigation, and they in fact may be doing one now. In my experience, they typically don't say they're doing investigations. Same with the Securities and Exchange Commission—they may not say they're doing an investigation.

If you look at what the fossil fuel companies—and I specifically say companies because now there's evidence that it wasn't just Exxon Mobil who knew about climate change—planned for it and then denied it. Shell also knew about climate change, planned for it and then publicly denied it.

That set back the fight against climate change for decades, which is unfortunate because [the necessary action] is not just merely taking carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases out of the air. It's taking it out of the air within a certain amount of time. All of the scientists who have looked at this have concluded if we don't do it relatively soon, we're going to cross a point of no return where we cannot stop the extreme weather events that are already starting to happen to us.

Bloomberg BNA:

So how do you keep building momentum for climate change action here on Capitol Hill in light of the extremely polarized view of this issue where many Republicans continue to deny the problem even exists?

Lieu:

While it's true that the only major conservative party in the entire world that denies climate change is the Republican Party, we are seeing cracks in the monolithic denial of science. Last year, at least 10 Republican members of Congress signed a resolution that says climate change is happening, and it's largely caused by humans.

We also have a number of organizations and entities that are not normally viewed as progressive or liberal all concluding that climate change is real, it's a problem and we need to do something about it. So we have the Catholic Church saying we need to address the urgency of climate change. We have the U.S. military. One of the reasons our U.S. military is the best in the world is it doesn't rely on fantasy or speculation. It relies on facts and data, and it plans against facts and data and science. And it's realized that climate change is happening, and it's affecting U.S. national security. And then today you have Exxon Mobil saying climate change is real, it's being largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels and Exxon Mobil supports a fee on carbon.

So for those who deny climate change, I just would like them to consider what Exxon Mobil knows that they don't.

Bloomberg BNA:

So do you see that translating into legislation in the near future?

Lieu:

I do. My view of politics is everything appears impossible until it happens. So, if 10 years ago I said, ‘we're going to have legalized gay marriage across America,’ you'd have thought I was smoking marijuana. We have legalized gay marriage across America now, and I think the rapidity with which that happened took a lot of people by surprise. But it also shows what happens when the public has shifted opinion in an overwhelming manner. That's what we're seeing with climate change.

With every passing year, more and more people in America and in the world come to the conclusion that physics and chemistry and science is actually correct. You saw what happened in Paris. You had all the countries in the world essentially saying climate change is real, humans are largely to blame for it, and we need to take actions to stop it.

Bloomberg BNA:

Do you hear different attitudes from your Republican colleagues in private about this issue? Is there a degree of this that is public posturing?

Lieu:

You're already starting to see the argument shift. Ten years ago you had a lot of people saying that climate change just isn't happening. Now even some of the most conservative members of Congress will acknowledge climate change is happening, they just don't know what to attribute it to, which then leads to potential areas of agreement where we can work on adaptation.

It's clear that more coastal cities are increasingly being flooded, and flood risks are increasing. So, you can work on policies that try to adapt to that situation and try to mitigate what flooding can cause to cities. So, I think there are areas of agreement where we can say, ‘look, we don't need you to say you believe climate change is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels, we just need you to acknowledge it's happening. Now let's work together on how we can make our society more resilient.'

Bloomberg BNA:

What's next for you? Are you looking to send some additional letters to fossil fuel companies? How do you push the ball forward on this issue as a freshman member of Congress?

Lieu:

I'm pleased that the letters we've written appear to have generated interest by law enforcement bodies to investigate fossil fuel companies. I am a firm believer that prosecutors and investigators are professional, and they will decide to charge or not charge a company based on the facts.

I believe, when you look at the facts, I think there's a very high likelihood you're going to have a number of fossil fuel companies not just being investigated but eventually charged. What they did is similar to what the tobacco companies did where they denied the science in order to sell a product that was causing harm.

Bloomberg BNA:

On the issue of the presidential election, does the rise of Donald Trump take attention away from serious policy issues like climate change and how concerning is that?

Lieu:

If Donald Trump was the Republican nominee, you'd have a Democratic wave.

Bloomberg BNA:

In the interim though, is so much of the oxygen getting sucked out of the room by him that the country isn't talking about consequential issues?

Lieu:

It's always been historically difficult to do major, significant things in a presidential year. It is made somewhat more difficult because you do have Donald Trump saying outrageous things that then sell newspapers, which then causes more press to cover it. That's just the way our political system works right now.

Bloomberg BNA:

Anything else you'd like to discuss with respect to climate change?

Lieu:

I hope that those on the other side of the aisle can at least work together on adaptation issues. I come from a very blessed district. The people in my district—many of them—do have the means to respond if the temperature got significantly hotter. Many of them would simply turn on their air conditioning. You've got many districts in America, including districts in red states, where if the temperature got significantly hotter people would start dying.

You've got many districts, including those in red states, where flooding is a problem. Where the increased chances of forest fires are a problem. I think there are ways forward where we can at least work on making America more resilient to climate change. We should work on those issues now.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com