DETROIT ― Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee hinted Wednesday that he is open to prosecuting fossil fuel executives, a topic that came up in Tuesday’s CNN debate and is likely to again enter the debate’s second installment.
Standing in a community center just across the street from Michigan’s only oil refinery, the Washington governor said the Department of Justice should ultimately decide whether to charge executives from any industry with committing a crime.
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“But I do know the decisions being made are killing people in the United States,” Inslee said of the oil, gas and coal industry. “That’s something that should be taken seriously.”
Inslee, 68, has pegged his candidacy to an ambitious slate of economic and environmental proposals to dramatically slash climate-changing emissions, end coal use by 2030 and revitalize the union movement with a clean-infrastructure construction boom. In the 11,000-word “Freedom From Fossil Fuels” plan he released last month, the governor vowed to establish a new office in the Department of Justice to prosecute polluters “to the fullest extent of civil and criminal law.”
His remark on Wednesday came a day after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 frontrunner, said a future administration must contend with “an industry that knowingly” earned billions of dollars by “destroying the planet.”
“I say that is criminal activity,” Sanders said.
The statements rang true to Detroiters gathered Wednesday morning at the Kemeny Recreation Center, located just across the street from Marathon Oil’s refinery facility in Southwest Detroit. The center serves as a community hub for 48217, Michigan’s most polluted zip code.
“They should be criminalized,” Theresa Landrum, a retired auto plant worker and community activist, said at the event after Inslee spoke. “It’s a crime what they’re doing to communities of color.”
In 2015, internal Exxon Mobil Corp. documents published by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed that the oil giant understood climate change and emissions’ cataclysmic effects, and it spent millions on a carefully orchestrated misinformation campaign modeled on the tobacco industry’s response to lung cancer research decades earlier. Since then, a wave of lawsuits crashed on oil and gas companies, including from the attorneys general of New York, Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Now the industry is facing a new series of lawsuits from insurance companies.
Tepid calls to prosecute the financiers of climate denial campaigns first emerged during the final years of the Obama administration. Despite the White House’s apparent disinterest in prosecuting, the issue quickly became an obsession for right-wing pundits who already considered the administration’s emissions-cutting policies to be federal overreach.
But as the death toll from extreme weather mounts and scientists’ warming projections grow more dire, industry efforts to delay climate action look increasingly like human rights violations. In a Jacobin essay published in February, writer Kate Aronoff called for investigating fossil fuel executives for crimes against humanity, using the prosecution of Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials as a potential model. Last month, a top human rights expert at the United Nations blamed fossil fuel companies and governments who subsidize them for causing a “full-blown” climate crisis.
“A lot of fossil fuel companies knowingly locate themselves near communities of color,” said Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer at the Sierra Club’s Detroit chapter. “They should definitely be held accountable.”