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House panel asks Big Oil board members to testify about climate disinformation

The Climate 202

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Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Today we are sad to announce that Alexandra Ellerbeck, The Climate 202 researcher, is leaving The Washington Post to be an editorial assistant for The New York Times’s Opinion section.

While we'll really miss Alex, we wish her luck on her next adventure. In the meantime, the newsletter will be a little shorter next week while we look for her replacement.

House panel asks Big Oil board members to testify about climate disinformation

The House Oversight and Reform Committee ​​​​​​has​ asked members of the boards of directors of ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell Oil to testify before Congress next month about their companies' commitment to curbing climate change, Maxine reported this morning.

The letters from the powerful panel, sent Thursday evening, press the directors on whether their firms' climate pledges are aligned with the more ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris agreement: To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

“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 read.

The recipients of the letters include:

  • Alexander “Andy” Karsner, an energy executive who was one of three activist investors to win a seat on Exxon’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 prioritize climate risks.
  • Susan Avery, an atmospheric physicist who serves as president emerita of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and was elected to Exxon’s board in 2017.
  • Jane Holl Lute, a former special adviser to the United Nations secretary general and former deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security ​​​​​​who sits on the Shell board's sustainability committee.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the committee, told Maxine 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 Exxon and Chevron have both reported their fourth-quarter earnings. 

Democrats on the panel previously grilled the chief executives of the four oil and gas companies, as well as two trade associations they fund, at a blockbuster 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 dangerous effects of burning fossil fuels, from rising sea levels to stronger storms.
  • At the end of the hearing, Maloney announced that she was subpoenaing the companies for thousands of pages of documents regarding their internal communications about climate science and policy.
Exxon in the hot seat

The latest letters come after Exxon on Tuesday announced a target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But the pledge did not cover scope 3 emissions, which include the emissions from customers who use the oil giant's products, such as drivers filling up at gas stations. 

According to Exxon's own data, scope 3 emissions account for about 80 percent of greenhouse gases that can be traced back to the company.

“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 Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment.  

Darren Woods, Exxon's chief executive, testified at the October hearing that the company’s past statements about climate change have all been consistent with the scientific consensus on global warming. 

However, Woods's predecessor, Lee Raymond, said in a 1997 speech that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” The speech came after Exxon’s own scientists had warned top brass at the company about the dangerous effects of greenhouse gases, including rising sea levels.

Khanna said he plans to read aloud Woods's comments to the two members of Exxon's board. 

“Some of these directors got elected on a climate agenda,” Khanna said. “I would hope that they in particular would be willing to denounce as false past CEOs' claims that were totally bogus science.”

Exxon 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 6-hour hearing.”

Spokespeople for BP, Chevron and Shell did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On the Hill

Lawmakers unveil bipartisan climate resilience legislation

Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Thursday introduced a bill to create a national climate adaptation and resilience strategy as well as a position of chief resilience officer in the White House. Reps. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and María Salazar (R-Fla.) introduced companion legislation in the House.

The lawmakers say the effort is aimed at creating a “whole of government” approach to climate resilience and streamlining the efforts of multiple federal agencies. 

Co-sponsors of the legislation include Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), as well as Reps. John Curtis (R-Utah) and Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.).

Senators urge Biden not to extend solar tariffs

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) led a letter to Biden urging him not to extend tariffs on solar panels put in place under the Trump administration in 2018. The letter argues that the tariffs “hurt the nearly 90% of workers in the domestic solar industry who work in non-manufacturing jobs.”

The letter was signed by Republicans Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.), as well as by Democrats Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.).

Democrats scramble to resurrect parts of Build Back Better bill

Democrats are trying to figure out what parts of Biden's Build Back Better agenda to keep and what parts to jettison after the president acknowledged that the package would not pass in its current form, The Post's Tony Romm reports.

Top Democrats have indicated that there is strong consensus on the climate provisions in the bill, as The Climate 202 reported yesterday. But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the moderate holdout who refused to support the larger package, said Thursday he wants to start "from scratch” in negotiations over the legislation. The comments affirmed reporting from our colleague Jeff Stein earlier this month that the senator's $1.8 trillion counteroffer to the White House, which included about $500 billion in climate funding, is no longer on the table.

Pressure points

Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight for third year in a row

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists kept the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the symbolic hour that marks the end of the world. It’s the third year in a row that the clock has teetered at the 100-second mark after scientists first moved it there in 2020, The Post's Paulina Firozi reports.

The unchanged time reflects that the world remains in a “perilous moment,” said Sharon Squassoni, a professor at George Washington University and co-chair of the bulletin’s science and security board. “Steady is not good news.”

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the clock, which was created in 1947. While the bulletin traditionally focused on the threat of nuclear disaster, it has expressed growing concern in recent years about the threats of climate change and disinformation.  

It's not all bad news

One of the world’s largest healthy reefs was found off Tahiti

French researchers said they discovered one of the world’s largest healthy coral reefs off the coast of Tahiti in December. (Video: Alexis Rosenfeld/UNESCO)

The reef is estimated to be two miles long and is filled with rose-shaped corals, some of which are more than six feet in diameter, The Post’s Rick Noack reports. It offers the tantalizing promise that more reefs may be hidden in unmapped areas of the ocean.

Whereas many of the world’s tropical reefs are found in relatively shallow water, this one was found far deeper, in areas largely unexplored. The deeper water may insulate the reef from the effects of climate change, which has led to bleaching events that devastated other coral reefs off Tahiti.

Global climate

China's claims of a ‘green’ Olympics spark skepticism

The Chinese government has proposed that the 2022 Olympic Games will be “carbon neutral” and “green.” But environmentalists have reason to be skeptical, The Post’s Christian Shepherd reports.

First, there’s China’s record. While the country has cast itself as a global leader on climate and sustainability, it is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. Beijing and the surrounding province — where the Games will take place — rely on fossil fuels for the bulk of their energy. Meanwhile, the capital is suffering from water scarcity, and it’s unclear how the creation of vast amounts of artificial snow will affect water reserves.

Second, there’s the lack of accountability at the Olympics, which do not have any independent assessment of sustainability goals. Countries have repeatedly promised clean Games, only to face criticism for environmental harm. The 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, for instance, resulted in severe damage to a mountain stream and the illegal dumping of construction waste. 

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