The coronavirus pandemic requires priority attention from every part of society, from political leaders to organizations supporting healthcare workers to the everyday citizens who must protect themselves and their loved ones and help minimize community spread while putting food on the table. But we must not let this blind us to the existence of other pressing societal problems. Another crisis of even greater proportions – climate change – continues to gather momentum despite a temporary drop in global carbon emissions linked to the dramatic reduction in economic activity related to coronavirus restrictions. Whistleblowers play a critical role in meeting the climate challenge, which is why the National Whistleblower Center has made its Climate Corruption Campaign one of its top organizational priorities.
A Two-for-One Special
Fortunately, the climate challenge can be dealt with simultaneously with the coronavirus, saving taxpayers money and ensuring that we do not lose precious time in heading off devastating and irreversible shocks to our climate system while we take care of urgent public health and economic redevelopment needs. Investments needed to rebuild the coronavirus-ravaged economy can create jobs in businesses and other institutions that are delivering carbon pollution reductions and increasing the resilience of communities to intensified storms, heat waves, wildfires, and other impacts of climate change. As coronavirus-related public funds continue to flow, we must ensure that they are used to help those most in need and to build a more sustainable and resilient economy.
Whistleblowers will play a critical role in helping society deal with these twin challenges. In fact, whistleblowers have always played a central role in ensuring that government funds go to their intended purposes and addressing the waste, fraud, and abuse that accompanies large-scale government spending. One of the most successful whistleblower laws, the False Claims Act (FCA), which now exists in 31 states in addition to in the U.S. Code, was crafted to rein in fraud in the midst of another national crisis, the Civil War. The FCA is sometimes called Lincoln’s Law because it was signed by President Lincoln to counter massive fraud by suppliers of food and equipment to the Union Army. Just like strong anti-fraud measures were needed to ensure the success of the Union Army, they will now be needed to ensure success in battling the coronavirus and climate change.
The Need for Focus on Fossil Fuel Companies
Fossil fuel companies are in need of special attention from whistleblowers at this critical moment. With an outsized contribution to carbon pollution, outsized political influence, and a track record of deception (historian Naomi Oreske asserts that their disinformation campaign on climate change could be the “greatest scam in history”), this industry is now moving aggressively to shape the federal coronavirus response.
Of the 12 energy companies and trade associations on the White House’s recently-announced Coronavirus Economic Advisory Group, virtually all represent the fossil fuel industry; no renewable energy companies or associations are represented. Fossil fuel companies have already received millions of dollars in coronavirus bailout funds and some oil and gas companies are now arguing that the Administration should consider paying them not to drill given oversupply and storage problems. Of the regulatory rollbacks launched since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a large percentage benefit the oil and gas industry.
Ideally, any federal support for energy companies would be linked to aggressive measures to speed the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy. However, regardless of whether Congress is ready to tackle climate change, government assistance must be accompanied by strong transparency and accountability measures, including a prominent role for whistleblowers.
Coronavirus legislation passed to date is not encouraging on this front. Although the US$2 trillion Cares Act creates a new Inspector General position to help track its spending, it authorizes distributions of billions of dollars to private industry without requiring the Administration to disclose the identities of the recipients. No new whistleblower protections or incentives are included.
Urgent action to assist whistleblowers is needed – starting with whistleblowers who expose institutional failures to protect workers from coronavirus-related threats. For example, reforms are badly needed at the Occupational Safety Health and Administration which, charged with handling whistleblower complaints regarding workplace safety, sits largely immobile in the face of thousands of complaints from workers complaining of inadequate protections. To address these challenges, the National Whistleblower Center has launched a Coronavirus Accountability Campaign to provide legal assistance to whistleblowers and advocate for policy improvements.
Another area of worker exposure to coronavirus-related threats is in hazardous workplaces where safety inspections are being shelved in the name of protection against the coronavirus. With support from the Trump Administration, the oil and gas industry is reportedly cutting back dramatically on safety inspections due to the coronavirus, despite the risks of toxic releases and explosions. Strong whistleblower engagement will be needed to ensure that these do not devolve into cost-cutting exercises that leave both workers, surrounding communities, and the environment at serious risk.
In the face of oversupply and falling prices – a trend that plagued the industry long before the onset of the coronavirus – the great risk is that the fossil fuel sectors will seek to keep shareholder dividends flowing through environmental and safety shortcuts and generous infusions of taxpayer dollars. Whistleblowers both inside and outside the industry will be essential to limit the waste, fraud, and abuse associated with this effort and to protect workers, communities, the environment, and taxpayers from harm.