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House panel presses oil executives on climate disinformation

Lawmakers likened hearing to one in 1994 during which tobacco company execs testified under oath that they didn’t believe nicotine was addictive

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods testified remotely that “as science has evolved and developed our understanding has evolved and developed.”
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods testified remotely that “as science has evolved and developed our understanding has evolved and developed.” (House Oversight and Reform Committee)

Chief executives of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other so-called oil supermajors intentionally misled the public over the links between their products and climate change, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee said at a hearing Thursday.

“Big oil has known the truth about climate change for decades,” Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said in her opening remarks. “In the 1970s and ’80s, Exxon’s own scientists privately told top executives that burning fossil fuel was changing the global climate.”

The heads of the U.S.-based subsidiaries BP America and Shell Oil as well as the presidents of the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also testified.

Mahoney and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Ro Khanna, D-Calif., compared the hearing to one in 1994 during which U.S. tobacco company executives testified under oath that they didn’t believe nicotine was addictive.

“Today, the CEOs of the largest oil companies in the world have a choice,” Khanna said. “You can either come clean, admit your past misrepresentations and ongoing inconsistencies and stop supporting climate disinformation, or you can sit there in front of the American public and lie under oath.”

In their opening statements, the executives touted efforts their companies have made to reduce emissions, such as supporting carbon capture technology and investments in low-carbon forms of energy. Fossil fuels will remain an important energy source in coming decades, they said, and demand may increase in the short term.

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., characterized these efforts as greenwashing. Using glasses filled with M&Ms to demonstrate, she noted that Shell Oil’s planned investment in renewable energy, $2 to $3 billion this year, was far outpaced by the plan to spend $19 to $22 billion in the near term on fossil fuel exploration.

“To me, this does not look like an adequate response to one of the defining challenges of our time,” said Porter.

When pressed on a 1997 speech in which predecessor Lee Raymond said there was no conclusive evidence for climate change, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods denied it was inconsistent with the views of the scientists at the time.

“Our understanding of the science has been aligned with the consensus of the scientific community as far back as 20 years ago,” said Woods. “And as science has evolved and developed our understanding has evolved and developed, as has our work and position.”

Before the hearing started, the majority staff released a report detailing the oil companies’ and API’s lobbying and found they have spent a combined $452.6 million since 2011. It found that less than 0.4 percent of that was on carbon pricing legislation, even as they embraced the policy publicly.

It also found that 0.17 percent of the total lobbying was devoted to lobbying in favor of the Paris Agreement, or about eight instances out of nearly 4,600 examined.

The hearing was spurred in part by a recording released by Greenpeace U.K. in which ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy said the company can publicly support carbon pricing because it stands little chance of garnering the necessary support in Congress.

‘Not fully aligned’

Khanna questioned whether the companies’ trade industry memberships result in other policies they support standing little chance of passing. He noted that API has lobbied against policies the companies support, such as a methane fee or increased funding for electric vehicle charging.

None of the executives took Khanna’s invitation to leave the group or commit to independent audits to confirm they were not funding climate disinformation. However, they did acknowledge there were differences of opinion between the groups and their own internal policies.

“There are several places where we are not fully aligned,” said Shell Oil President Gretchen Watkins.

Other Democrats questioned the executives on their influence over the reconciliation bill, which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said was “deeply influenced” by the lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry.

Neither Chamber of Commerce CEO Suzanne Clark nor API President Mike Sommers provided figures on how much they spent lobbying on the bill, although both said they opposed the bill. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., questioned why the API would spend money opposing reduction policies on methane after announcing its support for the federal regulation of methane.

“Either you’re lying about your support for reducing methane emissions or you’re working against yourself, which makes no sense and certainly isn’t money well spent by your institution,” said Wasserman Schultz.

Sommers reiterated API’s support for these regulations and said it has been working with the Biden administration to ensure that the regulation “makes sense.”

Committee Republicans, including ranking member James R. Comer of Kentucky, questioned whether the hearing was an appropriate topic for the committee and said it should instead focus on the actions of the federal government.

They used the hearing to criticize Democratic energy policy and invited a worker who was unemployed after President Joe Biden revoked a necessary permit for the Keystone XL pipeline to appear.

“Democrats have contrived yet another hearing to demonize the oil and gas industry,” said Environment Subcommittee ranking member Ralph Norman, R-S.C. “The folks represented before us today run organizations that are providing good-paying jobs and secure affordable and clean energy for all Americans.”

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., accused Maloney of “rank intimidation” by attempting to elicit certain pledges from the executives, which he claimed was a violation of the First Amendment.

“Just because we are members of Congress and we’ve got microphones and we pass laws does not mean that we also have the ability to infringe on your ability to organize,” said Donalds.

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