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House panel broadens probe into climate disinformation by Big Oil

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has invited members of fossil fuel companies’ boards of directors to testify at a hearing next month on their commitment to addressing climate change

Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, testifies during a House Oversight Committee hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change on Oct. 28. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has broadened its investigation into the role of fossil fuel companies in misleading the public about climate change, asking members of the boards of directors of ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell Oil to testify before Congress next month about their firms’ commitments to curbing global warming.

The move by the powerful Oversight Committee comes as Senate Democrats struggle to pass sweeping climate and social spending legislation. President Biden acknowledged Wednesday that further cuts to his Build Back Better proposal may be necessary, and climate-fueled extreme weather events are intensifying around the country.

Oversight panel members previously grilled the CEOs of the four oil and gas companies, as well as two trade associations they fund, at a historic six-hour hearing in October. The proceedings grew heated at times as Democrats argued that the oil industry has deceived the public for decades about the perils of burning fossil fuels, which releases large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are dangerously warming Earth.

The latest letters from the Oversight Committee, sent Thursday evening, call on directors at four of America’s largest oil and gas companies to testify about whether their firms’ commitments to cut emissions are consistent with the Paris climate accord adopted in 2015.

“The hearing is part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into the role of the fossil fuel industry in preventing meaningful action on global warming, including through misrepresenting the scale of industry efforts to address the crisis,” the letters said.

“As worsening natural disasters linked to global warming devastate communities in the United States and globally, one of Congress’s top legislative priorities is combating the increasingly urgent crisis of a changing climate,” they added. “To do this, Congress must address pollution caused by the fossil fuel industry and curb business practices that lead to delay and disinformation on these issues.”

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Oversight Committee and is spearheading the investigation, told The Washington Post that “boards of directors at fossil fuel companies have a critical role to play in holding management accountable for meaningful emissions reductions that will help the world achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which is the goal of the Paris accord.”

Maloney added that she is prepared to subpoena the directors if they refuse to testify at the hearing, which is scheduled for Feb. 8, after ExxonMobil and Chevron have reported their fourth-quarter earnings. The panel has already wielded its subpoena power to demand thousands of pages of documents regarding the fossil fuel companies’ internal communications about climate change.

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ExxonMobil spokesman Casey Norton said the oil giant has been cooperating with the committee.

“We have been in regular communication with the committee since last summer and have provided staff with more than 200,000 pages of documents, including board materials and internal communications,” Norton said in an email. “In addition, our chairman and CEO voluntarily appeared before the committee and answered questions during the course of a six-hour hearing.”

On Tuesday, ExxonMobil announced a target to achieve net-zero emissions in its operations by 2050. But climate activists panned the pledge as insufficient, noting that it did not cover “scope 3″ emissions, which include the emissions from drivers filling up at gas stations, and which account for the vast majority of the company’s carbon pollution.

“We have to look past the window dressing and really ask, what are these companies actually pledging in terms of getting to net zero? And how are they going to actually achieve that?” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee on the environment.

“We expect all of the directors to show up and answer honestly,” he said, noting that “some of them got elected on a climate agenda.”

One such director is Alexander “Andy” Karsner, an energy executive who was one of three activist investors to win a seat on ExxonMobil’s board of directors in May, marking a surprise victory for Engine No. 1, a small activist hedge fund that has pushed the oil giant to adopt a stronger climate stance.

Khanna and Karsner have crossed paths before. The two men had dinner together in Silicon Valley a decade ago, after Khanna’s time as deputy assistant secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama.

Ten years later, Khanna said he plans to press Karsner on comments made by ExxonMobil’s chief executive, Darren Woods, at the last oversight hearing in October. Woods told the panel that the company’s past statements about climate change have been consistent with the scientific consensus on global warming.

In response, Maloney read aloud statements from one of Woods’s predecessors, Lee Raymond, including a 1997 speech in which Raymond said “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” The speech came after ExxonMobil’s own scientists had warned top brass at the company about the dangerous effects of greenhouse gases, including rising sea levels.

ExxonMobil has been in the committee’s crosshairs since July, when Greenpeace UK released a secretly recorded video of an ExxonMobil lobbyist boasting about the company’s efforts to undermine climate science and block climate legislation. Keith McCoy, who at the time thought he was talking to a job recruiter, said the company had relied on “shadow groups” to fight climate science and had lobbied influential senators to undercut Biden’s climate agenda.

Karsner will not be the only board member in the hot seat next month. The Oversight Committee also fired off a letter to Susan Avery, an atmospheric physicist who serves as president emerita of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and was elected to ExxonMobil’s board in 2017.

To answer for Chevron, Democrats called on Enrique Hernandez Jr., CEO of a security services company who chairs the Chevron board’s public policy and sustainability committee. The other two directors called to testify, Melody Meyer of BP and Jane Holl Lute of Shell, also sit on their boards’ respective sustainability panels.

Chevron, the second-biggest American oil company, announced in October an “aspiration” of net-zero emissions from its operations, a move similar to ExxonMobil’s pledge. BP and Shell, which are both headquartered in Europe, have done more to transition toward low-carbon endeavors such as renewable energy projects and electric vehicle charging stations.

Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, said the company was still reviewing the letter.

“In the meantime, we’re working hard to provide the Committee with materials requested in November of 2021,” Smith said in an email. “In a relatively short period of time, we have delivered to the Committee thousands of pages of documents that speak directly to Shell’s position on climate change over several decades, our strong support for the Paris Agreement and our efforts to be an industry leader in the transition to a lower-carbon future.”

Karsner and spokesmen for BP, Chevron and Shell did not respond to requests for comment.

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