A landmark congressional hearing to probe the extent to which the oil industry misled the public about global climate change featured executives of some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies and industry trade groups further downplaying climate science.
“We know the combustion of oil and gas releases greenhouse gases,” Darren Woods, CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform before misrepresenting the findings of the world’s leading climate science body.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” he said, “has concluded that increased greenhouse gases can contribute to climate change.”
What the United Nations scientific body actually concluded in an August report is that human activity—namely the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation—is the “unequivocal” cause of climate change, and has already unleashed devastating changes around the globe.
Other industry executives rolled out similarly couched talking points. “We accept the scientific consensus: Climate change is real and the use of fossil fuels contributes to it,” said Chevron CEO Michael Wirth.
“Climate change is real. Industrial activity contributes to it,” said Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry trade group that’s played an outsized role in sowing doubt about human-caused climate change and fighting efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
“The climate is changing and humans are contributing to those changes,” said Suzanne Clark, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has also spent years funding climate misinformation campaigns.
Such statements might have flown in the 1990s. In 2021, it is outright climate denial. The science is unequivocal: Fossil fuels aren’t just one of many contributors to global warming, but the primary cause of the rapidly worsening crisis.
The highly anticipated hearing marked the first time that oil industry executives have appeared before Congress to answer questions under oath about the industry’s role in spreading climate misinformation. Even before it started, Democrats were comparing the moment to a 1994 hearing in which executives of the largest tobacco companies testified that cigarettes and nicotine are not addictive.
“Twenty-seven years ago, seven tobacco executives appeared in this room before Congress,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the committee, said in her opening remarks. “Rather than admitting the truth about their product, the executives lied. This was a watershed moment in the public’s understanding of Big Tobacco. I hope that today’s hearing represents a turning point for Big Oil. I hope that today the witnesses will finally own up to the industry’s central role in this crisis and become part of the change we need.”
Executives flatly denied that their companies ever participated in an effort to downplay or dismiss the climate threat, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. “While our views on climate change have developed over time, any suggestion that Chevron has engaged in an effort to spread disinformation and mislead the public on these complex issues is simply wrong,” CEO Michael Wirth told lawmakers.
“Exxon does not, and never has, spread disinformation regarding climate change,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said.
An InsideClimate News investigation in 2015 revealed that top executives at Exxon knew about the role of fossil fuels in global warming as early as 1977, then lobbied against efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon has donated millions to groups that deny anthropogenic climate change. It and Chevron are both members of API, which knew about the threat in the early 1980s but worked to cover up and downplay it. Wirth sits on the board of API, which continues working to block climate action.
Maloney questioned Woods about statements that former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond made in the mid-1990s, including that the “the case for so-called global warming is far from air tight.” Nearly 20 years earlier, an Exxon scientist named James Black wrote in an internal memo that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Maloney asked Woods if he agreed that there are inconsistencies between statements from Exxon executives and its own scientists. Woods said he did not agree and that Exxon’s position “has continued to evolve with the scientific community.”
“I was hoping that you would not be like the tobacco industry was and lie about this,” Maloney told Woods. “I was hoping that you would be better than the tobacco industry and that you would have come out with the truth, and I’m disappointed with the statement that you made.”
Executives from BP and Shell also testified at Thursday’s hearing. None of the industry representatives would commit when Maloney called on them to pledge to no longer direct funds to efforts aimed at obstructing climate initiatives.
Meanwhile, Republican after Republican used their allotted time on Thursday to defend the oil executives, apologizing for what they described as Democrats’ efforts to “intimidate,” “badger” and “demonize” the industry. And they argued that the committee would be better off spending its time investigating something—anything—else: inflation, rising gas prices, immigration, the Afghanistan withdrawal, the pandemic.
“It is clear that this hearing is part of a Democrat-led disinformation campaign to distract from the Biden administration’s failed policies that are hurting average Americans,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said.
As Republicans worked to shift the focus of the hearing away from big oil’s record of pollution and climate denial, Democrats dug in.
“I think one thing that often gets lost in these conversations is that some of us have to actually live the future that you all are setting on fire,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said. “By 2028, crop yields are already projected to begin to fail, with famine beginning to hit the world’s most vulnerable populations. By 2038, current U.S. drought, fire and extreme heat trends could potentially make whole regions of the United States unlivable if we continue the trends that lobbyists are trying to have us pursue.”
“We do not have the privilege or luxury of lobbyist spin,” she added.
Democratic committee members had requested that companies turn over internal documents related to the industry’s role in misleading the public. Unsatisfied with what the companies provided, Maloney announced at the end of Thursday’s that she plans to subpoena them.
“I do not take this step lightly,” Maloney said. “We are at code red for climate and I am committed to doing everything I can to help rescue this planet and save it for our children. We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas we will.”