Kamala Harris claims she ‘took on Big Oil’ as California AG. How far did she go?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris claims she took on Big Oil during her time as California’s attorney general.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris claims she took on Big Oil during her time as California’s attorney general.
Platform Holly, an oil drilling rig in the Santa Barbara Channel offshore of the city of Goleta, Calif. The platform was idled when an onshore pipeline ruptured and spilled a massive amount of oil, the state said in 2017. (State Lands Commission via AP)
Platform Holly, an oil drilling rig in the Santa Barbara Channel offshore of the city of Goleta, Calif. The platform was idled when an onshore pipeline ruptured and spilled a massive amount of oil, the state said in 2017. (State Lands Commission via AP)

Democratic presidential hopeful and California Sen. Kamala Harris says she "will take on powerful interests," if elected to the White House. 

She claimed at last week’s CNN climate town hall that her record as the state’s top law enforcement officer shows she took on Big Oil, including the controversial practice of fracking.

Harris, 54, served as California’s attorney general from 2011 through 2016 and before that as San Francisco’s district attorney.

"As attorney general of California, in a state of 40 million people, in a state that is the fifth largest economy in the world, I was proud to be a fighter and took on the big oil companies, great powerful interests," Harris said at the town hall. "I was proud as attorney general of California, to defend the toughest environmental standards." 

On fracking, she said, "I have a history of taking on this issue." 

Also at the climate forum, she claimed she "sued Exxon Mobil" as California attorney general. News reports said her office investigated the oil giant over allegations it lied about climate change. We rated her overall claim False, however, after we found no evidence she actually sued the company.

We did not place a Truth-O-Meter rating on Harris’ claims about ‘taking on’ Big Oil, as that statement is subjective. But we examined her overall environmental record, with a focus on her actions involving the oil industry, and spoke with several experts about how far she went. 

‘Strong against oil companies’

To support her claims, Harris’ campaign spokesman Ian Sams wrote in an email that she "obtained $50 million in settlements from oil companies she took on like BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66. She also announced criminal indictments against Plains Pipeline for the massive oil spill they caused off the coast (of) Santa Barbara. The case continued after Harris left the AG's office and resulted in conviction." 

The spokesman provided a summary of Harris’ environmental record and cited news reports and attorney general press releases documenting Harris’ legal actions. 

"She actually has been really strong against oil companies," said Mary Creasman, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters, which lobbies for environmental issues. "And she for a long time now has pledged her support for banning fracking, which is actually more than we can say for a lot of our elected officials in Sacramento right now."

Creasman pointed to a 2011 settlement Harris reached with Chevron over allegations the company violated state laws on hazardous materials and waste. She also cited Harris’ challenge to Valero’s plans to "bring two 50 car trains loaded with volatile crude through California to a refinery in Benicia," among other actions.

"She also defended California’s landmark climate clean energy law, AB 32, countless times from Big Oil legal challenges," Creasman said. 

Harris ‘should have done far more’

Kassie Siegel, climate director at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, said Harris’ record on the environment is less glowing. She said the former attorney general "should have done far more." 

She cited the Exxon probe as an example. 

"She opened an investigation into Exxon for lying about climate change. But she didn’t take it further. She could have and she should have filed a lawsuit like the attorney general of New York," said Siegel, whose organization supports candidates that prioritize environmental protections. "She is saying bold, necessary things about confronting the oil industry. But we’d feel more confident in her promises, if her record as attorney general wasn’t so mixed -- if she had done the things as attorney general that she’s now promising to do as president."

Siegel gave Harris credit for filing a lawsuit against the federal government in December 2016 to block oil fracking off the coast of California, one of her final actions as attorney general. But her record early in her term is particularly thin when it comes to taking on the controversial practice, she added. 

"While she was attorney general, it came to light that the oil and gas industry had created a massive water contamination crisis by dumping toxic oil waste directly into underground sources of drinking water all over the state," Siegel said. "And Harris did nothing about that. So, again, her record is simply very mixed." 

‘Probably constrained on fracking’

Given that former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration was "cautiously supportive of fracking, or at least not opposed to it," Harris was probably constrained on the topic, said Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at UC Davis. Brown, a Democrat, was governor during Harris’ time as attorney general. 

Frank served as co-chair of Harris’ environmental transition team when she was elected attorney general, but did not go on to work for her office. 

He said Harris has a record of going after some energy companies when they violated the law. That was consistent, he added, with her work as San Francisco district attorney, where she created an environmental justice unit to go after crimes that disproportionately affected low-income communities, "when that was a little acknowledged or understood issue." 

But, Frank said, the environment was not her "overarching priority" as AG, given other issues such as the mortgage foreclosure crisis. 

"I think Attorney General Kamala Harris was strongly supportive of environmental values and skeptical of the major energy industry," Frank said. "But I don’t know that this was one of the primary areas upon which she focused as attorney general above and beyond what she was able to do in representing her state agency clients, such as the state water board and the California Air Resources Board. And representing them effectively, as she did during her tenure as attorney general, I think, is a very important if somewhat under-recognized part of the attorney general’s functions." 

Harris’ climate plan 

As president, Harris says she would again "hold Big Oil accountable." She released her plan to combat climate change last week, a document that calls for making sure all Americans benefit from a transformation away from fossil fuels. 

It also calls for ending federal subsidies for fossil fuel companies and holding "Big Oil accountable for its role in the climate crisis." To achieve that, Harris’ administration would charge a climate pollution fee and beef up funding for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to "ensure it has the staff required to enforce our existing environmental and public health protections," among other actions. 

PolitiFact California will continue to monitor Harris’ statements on the environment, and other topics, during her run for the White House, including at Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in Houston. Send us an email with your idea for a fact check at [email protected], or contact us on Twitter or Facebook.