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Oil execs grilled in ‘historic’ hearing over industry’s role in climate disinformation

Democrats accuse industry of misleading the public for decades — Republicans say targeting American oil production only helps China and OPEC

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, speaks at an Oct. 28 committee hearing.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, speaks at committee hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change “disinformation,” Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

Democratic lawmakers put oil executives in their crosshairs Thursday during a Congressional Oversight and Reform Committee hearing that chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, described as “historic.”

Key to the hearing was the oil industry’s decades-long “climate disinformation” campaign, where Maloney said companies suppressed findings from their own scientists, and watered down the impact fossil fuels have on climate change.

“The American people lost more than 30 years, when we could have curbed climate change,” Maloney said.

CEOs Darren Woods of Exxon Mobil, Michael Wirth of Chevron and David Lawler of BP America joined Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell, and Mike Sommers, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

It was the first time executives of the country’s major oil and gas companies testified before Congress together.

Susan Clark, president and CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce, and Neal Crabtree, a former welder, also testified. The witnesses all participated remotely.

The company heads pointed to recent moves to become more environmentally conscious. Between 2016 and 2020, Exxon Mobil had an 11% reduction in emissions; Chevron is promoting businesses with a low carbon footprint; Shell has invested billions in renewable energy, including a large stake in solar giant Silicon Ranch; and BP plans to reduce global oil and gas production by 40% by 2030. Support for the Paris Climate Agreement was broad.

But many Democratic lawmakers and advocates accused the companies of greenwashing.

“At today’s hearing, industry executives did not acknowledge their role in the climate crisis and attempted to greenwash their actions,” said Carly Ferro, director of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, in an email to the Deseret News. “The hearing was a sorely missed opportunity to bring everyone together to build resilience in the face of the increasing and varied consequences of the climate and extinction crises.”

The big tobacco hearing, with more partisanship

Throughout the five-hour hearing, lawmakers frequently drew parallels to the groundbreaking 1994 big tobacco hearing, where seven CEOs testified to Congress that they didn’t think nicotine was addictive. Two years later, the executives were all under investigation for potentially lying under oath.

The hearing on Thursday quickly descended into partisanship. Democrats grilled the executives on past statements, and accused them of greenwashing and hypocrisy. Republicans accused President Joe Biden and the Democrats of intimidating American companies while bolstering OPEC and China.

Several Republicans apologized to the executives for what one lawmaker called a “spectacle.”

Maloney pointed to Exxon’s own scientists privately telling top executives that burning fossil fuels was changing the climate. But “instead, big oil doubled down on fossil fuels,” and kicked off a “coordinated campaign” to mislead the public and derail a global effort to reduce emissions, she said.

After pressing Exxon’s Woods on past statements made by company leaders, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, asked CEOs of Shell and BP their stance on electric vehicles.

While both Shell’s Watkins and BP’s Lawler say they see electric vehicles as an essential component to reducing emissions, the American Petroleum Institute — which both Shell and BP are members of — has come out in opposition, saying they “unfairly burden non EV drivers and are costly for taxpayers and consumers.” According to Khanna, the institute lobbied to quash states’ attempts to expand electric vehicle infrastructure.

“Can you just tell them to stop the EV advertising? If you say that today he’ll stop. You give him $10 million a year,” Khanna pleaded to Watkins.

Watkins declined, and instead pointed to Shell’s individual efforts to promote electric vehicles.

“I don’t believe you purposely wanted to be out there spreading climate disinformation. But you’re funding these groups and they’re really having an impact. They’re sending millions of dollars in Congress to kill EVs.” Khanna said.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, accused companies of using front groups to flood social media with “misleading ads.”

“Oil and gas companies can go claiming they’re pro environment while opposing sensible pro environment measures in secret,” she said.

Across the aisle, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Indiana, said it was frustrating to hear Democrats advocate for a reduction in oil and gas production in America, “at the same time the president of the United States is telling OPEC to increase production. That may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said, praising Chevron for its intention to increase production.

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia, dubbed the hearing an opportunity “to highlight the horrible, miserable, failed policies of the Biden administration and Democratic party as a whole.”

Hice instead pointed to the situation at the southern border, issues with the supply chain, and America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as more pressing issues. He downplayed the grim climate scenarios painted by the U.N., saying it’s an attempt to push an “array of liberal, socialist wishlist priorities such as the Green New Deal.”

And Rep. Ralph Norman, R-South Carolina, said the Democrats were focused on destroying the oil industry.

“The oil and gas industry provides good paying jobs that help Americans reliably heat their houses, power their cars and keep the lights on,” he said.

At the end of the hearing, Maloney said she intends to issue subpoenas to the oil companies, the American Petroleum Institute and Chamber of Commerce for internal documents detailing their role in climate change.

The oil industry’s public lands stockpile

Biden’s pause on oil and gas leasing on public land came up several times during Thursday’s hearing — at one point, Rep. Katie Porter, D-California, who was speaking remotely, opened the back of her minivan to reveal roughly a dozen bags of rice symbolic of the industry’s stockpile of nearly 13.9 million non-producing acres.

“To visualize how much land that is, if each grain of rice were one acre, that would be 479 pounds of rice,” she said.

When asked, all executives told Porter they opposed Biden’s freeze on federal leasing.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, there are 2,975,000 acres of existing leases throughout Utah, but only 1,102,000 acres are currently being used for oil and gas production.

“Right now, in our state, oil and gas companies are sitting on 10,000 drilling and fracking sites that remain idle,” said Ferro. “Even more, reports unveiled that the oil, gas and mining industry worked hand in hand with Utah’s Republicans to oppose the pause on oil and gas leasing — even though they knew it would have minimal impact on Utah’s industry.”

Ferro also pointed to the millions in grants and subsidies that the industry benefits from.

“During the pandemic alone, the industry received a $5 million grant program to benefit producers without guardrails to ensure it went to individual workers,” she said. “When attempts were made to expand the grant to all energy sectors including the renewable energy industry, it was denied. This is frankly egregious and unacceptable.”

The Utah Petroleum Association did not respond to a request for comment.