Big Oil Testifies in Congress About Decades of Disinformation
Top executives from Big Oil companies ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell testified before Congress yesterday amid accusations and revelations about their industry's efforts to mislead the public about human-caused climate change. A report released Thursday morning by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform argued that the four companies have spent hundreds of millions lobbying the government to protect fossil fuel interests with only "a tiny fraction" going toward the pro-climate policies they claim to support.
At the hearing's end, after all four companies failed to turn over requested documents relating to their funding of disinformation campaigns, chairwoman of the committee Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) announced that she intends to issue subpoenas.
Republicans labeled the hearing "a distraction," while Democratic lawmakers vowed to hold these companies accountable.
Oversight Committee: Chairwoman Maloney's Opening Statement | Examining Big Oil's Climate Pledges, February 8, 2022.
Oversight Committee: Rep. Khanna's Opening Statement | Examining Big Oil's Climate Pledges, February 8, 2022.
Why This Matters
The COP26 conference begins Monday as countries face big decisions about where fossil fuel companies fit in the future of energy as the world works to decarbonize. Despite current Paris Agreement pledges, the world is not on track to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, with obstacles ranging from the absence of clean energy infrastructure to lack of funding. But in the US, the influence of fossil fuel interests in Congress and throughout the economy have played an especially controversial role. BP has even rebranded itself as standing for "Beyond Petroleum," but their lobbying expenditures suggest little has changed.
This hearing could be the start of real accountability for fossil fuel companies and their role in climate change -- forcing these companies to "put up or shut up" when it comes to decarbonization.
Play by Play
"Today, the CEOs of the largest oil companies in the world face a stark choice," said Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA). "You can either come clean, admit your past misrepresentations and ongoing inconsistencies, and stop supporting climate disinformation. Or you can sit here in front of the American public and lie under oath."
The executives, along with the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce were drilled about free speech, disinformation, and the "existential threat" of climate change. Some key questions and moments included:
- When President of Shell Oil Gretchen Watkins was asked if she believed climate change was an "existential threat" -- she would not answer "yes" despite assuring the panel that Shell was "in action" against climate change.
- ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods was drilled about a 1997 speech in which Woods's predecessor claimed, "the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight," despite the company's scientists studying the impact of greenhouse gases on warming.
- Representative Jamie B. Raskin (D-MD) asked all four companies' executives if they "accept that the First Amendment does not protect fraudulent commercial speech." None were able to answer "yes."
Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) compared the hearing and the executives' answers to the Big Tobacco hearings of the 1990s. After questioning Woods on his predecessor's misleading speech and a recent recording of an Exxon lobbyist, she said, "They are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were."
Other Democratic legislators agree with this comparison. "It could be the Big Tobacco moment," said Khanna before the hearing, "We've never had a situation where the Big Oil executives have to answer under oath for their company's behavior."
PBS Amanpour and Company: How Big Oil Has Misled the Public on Climate Change Since the 1970s, November 1, 2021.
CBS: Big oil executives grilled on Capitol Hill regarding disinformation on climate change (with Naomi Oreskes), October 28, 2021.
350 Silicon Valley: Exxon Exposed | A Conversation with Geoffrey Supran and Ben Franta, August 5, 2021.