Top executives from ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute appeared virtually on Thursday to testify before the House of Representatives on climate change. The day-long hearing drew comparisons to hearings decades ago when big tobacco executives were similarly forced to answer questions in front of Congress about the addictiveness of their products and the risks faced by smokers.
While some observers are already suggesting that this time around, Congress may have been “outmatched” by the oil executives, the day was nonetheless marked by a number of moments that could be consequential over the long run in holding Big Oil accountable for its role in the climate crisis.
Most notably, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced at the end of the hearing that investigators will subpoena documents from the oil giants, signalling that this week’s hearing may only be the beginning of Congress’ involvement.
DeSmog has collected short clips from some of Thursday’s most illuminating moments.
1: An ‘existential threat’
Oil executives were asked directly whether they challenged the science on climate change or fossil fuels’ role in causing climate change. Under questioning from Maloney, none of the oil and trade group executives would challenge the assertion that climate change is an “existential threat.”
“Climate change is real, burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of this crisis, and it is urgent that we fix it,” Maloney said. “This is the first time each of you has told Congress this, and the companies that you represent — and it is significant and important.”
2: Whose views does API represent?
In July, Channel 4 and Greenpeace UK’s Unearthed published videos of Keith McCoy, then a senior director of ExxonMobil’s government affairs team in Washington D.C., describing ExxonMobil’s lobbying strategies, including their use of trade associations and what McCoy termed “shadow groups” to advance causes that his company did not want to be publicly associated with.
During the hearing, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, drilled down on places where trade associations’ positions differ from those of their member companies. Khanna grilled the oil executives about their companies’ membership in the American Petroleum Institute (API), asking Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP to leave API if API continues to lobby against clean energy policies like those supporting electric vehicles.
“Miss Watkins, come on, will you do something here?” Khanna asked, directing his question to Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil, the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, who throughout the hearing sought to position Shell as a better actor on climate than U.S.-based oil giants like ExxonMobil and who testified that Shell’s views were “somewhat misaligned” with their trade associations’ views. “Will you commit to saying you’re not gonna fund any group that’s going to engage in climate disinformation, at least?” Khanna pressed.
“Chairman Khanna, what I’ll commit to is continuing to be an active member of the API,” Watkins replied. None of the gathered oil executives responded affirmatively when Khanna asked them to voluntarily commit to an outside audit of whether they funded climate disinformation or shadow groups.
3: ‘Low-lying areas … might have to be abandoned’
The consequences of climate change for communities — particularly communities of color, both in the U.S. and abroad — were brought home by Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO). Bush grilled Watkins about a confidential 91-page 1988 Shell report on climate change and the role that fossil fuels play in changing the climate; the document was only uncovered in 2018 by a Dutch reporter and was made public by the Climate Investigations Center.
“Large low-lying areas could be inundated (e.g. Bangladesh) and might have to be abandoned or protected effectively,” that report warns under the heading “rise in sea level.” Bush alluded to that passage in her questioning, asking Watkins if it bothered her that her company “deemed a country of 98 million brown people expendable.”
“Actually, Congresswoman, I’m glad my company’s been involved in the science research and involved in these discussions for decades,” Watkins replied.
4: Dedicated to fossil fuels
Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) also hammered Shell, using a jar of M&M’s to visually demonstrate roughly how much of the company’s annual budget was committed to continuing fossil fuel production versus on energy transition efforts. One jar, illustrating the company’s fossil fuel budget, was nearly full, while the other jar wound up nearly empty.
5: Chevron’s denial under oath
Meanwhile, Chevron CEO Michael Wirth denied that his company had spread disinformation at all, testifying under oath that “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.”
“They are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were,″ Maloney said about the oil executives at one point during the hearing.
6. No ‘credibility’
“You know, the issue here is credibility,” observed Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), as he proceeded to grill the oil companies about what exactly they disclosed to their own shareholders about climate change.
Documents have revealed that the fossil fuel industry knew about the dangers of climate change since at least the late 1950s. And as DeSmog reported in 2016, Exxon corporate reports from the late 1970s stated “There is no doubt” that CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels was a growing “problem.”
7: Republican deflection
A number of Republican representatives sought to steer attention towards other issues, ranging from the Biden administration to Chinese missiles to Russian pipelines. Some argued that it was constitutionally troubling for Congress to ask about disinformation at all, suggesting that the oil companies’ First Amendment right to free speech was under assault.
Rep. Jamie Raskin’s (D-MD) questions seem to have anticipated that line of argument. Under questioning from Raskin, none of the executives from ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, or Chevron would say whether they believed that false commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment (spoiler: it’s not).
8: Natural gas no ‘climate solution’
Some of the day’s most rhetorically devastating questioning came from Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL), who confronted the oil executives about claims that a growing reliance on natural gas — a fossil fuel that’s almost entirely made of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas — should be considered beneficial for the climate.
“Congressman, we have programs at the American Petroleum Institute to work to eliminate methane emissions,” Mike Sommers, president of the API, said after Casten asked if he disputed that methane leaks are above the level that make natural gas a more dangerous fuel for the climate than coal. “Okay, but you’re ducking the question, sir. If you don’t have that, you’ve got to ask why you’re calling something a climate solution that as we sit today is warming up the planet.”
“The west is on fire. Floods are coming. The ice is melting. Because of analyses you had in 1978, my question for all of you, which you can submit for the record is, are your grandchildren proud of you?” Casten concluded. There was silence from all of the fossil fuel executives as Casten ended his questioning.
9: Climate communications
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) also grilled the oil giants and API about their strategy on climate communications, asking Exxon CEO Darren Woods and Chevron CEO Mike Wright about a leaked 1998 API memo on the organization’s draft Global Climate Science Communications Plan, which reads, in part: “victory will be achieved when […] Average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”
10: More digging into disinformation
As the all-day hearings drew to an end, Maloney announced that the committee had requested documents that would shine a light on climate disinformation and what oil companies knew about climate change, but that companies had instead offered printouts of their websites and annual reports. That, Maloney said, was unacceptable, announcing the committee’s intention to issue subpoenas forcing the oil giants to turn over the documents Congress demanded.