For the first time ever, top executives in the oil industry were grilled by federal lawmakers for their alleged role in misleading the public for decades on climate change and stalling efforts to reduce the use of their products, a major contributor to global warming.
Becoming heated at moments, Democrats drew stark parallels between their climate hearing and an infamous 1994 inquiry at which tobacco executives testified under oath that they believed nicotine was not addictive.
“You can either come clean, admit your misrepresentations and ongoing inconsistencies and stop supporting climate disinformation, or you can sit there in front of the American public, and lie under oath,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Environment.
Big Tobacco was eventually to forced to settle with state prosecutors and curtail cigarette marketing. At the moment, it is unclear if the Big Oil hearing yielded any bombshell revelations that may move U.S. climate policy.
Democrats are intent on getting more information. At the end of the hearing, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the committee, let the oil executives know she intended to subpoena the companies for documents regarding their communications about climate change.
“Please note that I do not take this step lightly,” she said.
Still, the historic six-hour hearing comes as President Biden is set to fly to Scotland to attend a major international climate conference and negotiate bigger cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from China and other top polluters. His administration is also in the midst of trying to secure a deal to boost funding for alternative forms of energy by $555 billion as part of a signature $1.75 trillion bill.
“This is a watershed moment in not only efforts to hold fossil fuel interests accountable for the decades of deception, but also more broadly in the climate battle itself,” said Geoffrey Supran, a research fellow at Harvard University who studies the history of climate politics.
Appearing by video conference rather than in person, the oil executives acknowledged the burning of their products is contributing to the rise in global temperatures — a position many petroleum firms once refused to take. Yet the industry’s top brass denied its involvement in a campaign to deliberately mislead the public on climate change.
“While our views on climate change have developed over time, any suggestion that Chevron is engaged in an effort to spread disinformation and mislead the public on these complex issues is simply wrong,” Chevron CEO Michael Wirth told lawmakers.
No company sustained more intense questioning than the nation’s biggest oil company, Exxon.
Maloney said there was a “clear conflict” between what Exxon’s old executives said about climate change and what the company’s own researchers were privately telling the company leaders.
She grilled Exxon CEO Darren Woods about statements sowing doubt about climate change from one of Woods’s predecessors, Lee Raymond, including a mid-1990s speech in which Raymond said “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.”
Those public statements came even as Exxon’s scientists were studying the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and warning the company’s leaders of the “generally negative consequences” of rising sea levels.
“Do you agree, there is an inconsistency?” Maloney asked.
“No, I do not agree there was an inconsistency,” Woods responded, noting those statements were decades old and the company’s position has evolved along with the consensus in the scientific community.
“I think the quotes speak for themselves,” Maloney said in response.
The oil industry’s main lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, also came under scrutiny.
Khanna called on oil companies to quit their membership in API over its opposition to climate policies such as electric vehicle subsidies. French oil giant Total announced in January that it was leaving the lobbying group, saying it could not reconcile differences with the powerful trade association over electric vehicle subsidies and fees on methane emissions.
“Would any of you take the opportunity and look at API and say, ‘stop it'?" Khanna asked executives from BP, Shell, Exxon and Chevron.
His question was met with blank stares. None of the executives would commit to leaving the powerful lobbying group.
The oil executives repeatedly noted gasoline and other fuels they sell will remain a key part of the world’s economy for decades to come. “There are no easy answers,” Exxon’s Woods said. Many of the oil industry witnesses touted companies’ support for the Paris climate accord and efforts to reduce emissions on their own.
During the hearing, the oil industry rallied around the idea of placing a price on carbon dioxide emissions as a solution to climate change. One 2017 proposal would charge polluters a fee of $40 per ton in exchange for protection from lawsuits and other regulations, though the backers of that plan dropped their support for liability protection in 2019.
But critics of Exxon say a secretly recorded video of one of the company’s top lobbyists undermines that stance. Keith McCoy, formerly Exxon’s senior director for federal relations, said the firm’s public support of a carbon tax was just a “talking point” with little chance of passing Congress, according to a video released by Greenpeace UK in July.
Democrats played a portion of the video during the hearing. “They are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were,” Maloney said after it finished.
Four of the liberal lawmakers known as “the Squad” — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) — took turns bashing the fossil fuel industry for the harm they say their pollution has on vulnerable communities.
“I need Chevron to cut the check. You owe $50 billion to Indigenous communities and people that you harmed for profit,” Tlaib told Chevron’s Wirth.
Republicans on the panel accused Democrats starting their own campaign to divert attention from Biden’s record.
Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the ranking Republican, blasted his Democratic colleagues for holding a hearing about past oil industry statements at a time when the country faces so many crises, listing off the recent increase in gasoline prices, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the coronavirus pandemic.
“This hearing is simply a distraction,” he said.
To underscore their opposition to Biden’s climate agenda, Republicans brought in Neal Crabtree, a laid-off welder on the Keystone XL pipeline, to testify alongside the oil executives. Biden quashed the controversial pipeline as one of his first actions in office on January.
The extent to which some oil companies understood the risks of climate change decades before much of the public did has become clear in recent years.
Reporting from Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times showed that Exxon’s own researchers studied the link between climate change and fossil-fuel emissions decades ago, even as the company publicly doubted about that science at the time. Shell’s in-house scientists knew, too, of the risk climate change posed back in the 1980s, according to documents compiled by a Dutch news organization.
Democrats say the hearing marks just the beginning of their inquiry. Lawmakers next plan to scrutinize the role social media and public relations firms play in propagating falsehoods about climate change, Khanna said in an interview following the hearing.
Well before the oversight panel launched its investigation, five states and more than a dozen cities had filed lawsuits alleging that the oil industry misled the public as local governments contend with rising seas, more intense fires and other effects of climate change.
Among the litigants is Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D), who sued Exxon, API and Koch Industries last year for allegedly “downplaying the role that the purchase and consumption of their products played in causing climate change and the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.”
When asked about the parallels between his legal challenge and the Oversight hearing, Ellison told The Post, “The parallel is as clear as day: deception is their business model.”