Democrats grilled the executives of oil majors ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and others for campaigns the lawmakers charged have misled the public on the dangerous effects of climate change in ways that mimic historic efforts by cigarette makers to disguise health concerns.
Republicans at the same committee meeting Tuesday stressed their view that withholding U.S.-generated energy sources, including natural gas NG00, will only cut U.S. jobs, risk U.S. security because of tenuous relationships with gas-giant Russia and certain Middle East governments, and drive up gasoline and home-heating costs at a time when global markets are experiencing a crisis of energy supply — all while demand is increasing. The GOP members also used the hearing to repeat calls for tougher emissions expectations for China and India, which along with the U.S., round out the top three global polluters.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, the Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, told the oil executives that while the companies now acknowledge that the burning of fossil fuels drives climate change, have made emissions-reduction pledges and diversified their products to include renewables, such actions stand in contrast to their high lobbying expenses for efforts to push for new drilling and more. And, the Democrats charged, energy companies aren’t as open with the public as they should be.
“Rather than admitting the truth about their product, the [tobacco] executives lied. This was a watershed moment in the public’s understanding of Big Tobacco,” said Mahoney. “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.”
The committee’s majority drew on decades-old reports containing red flags on global warming from scientists inside the oil companies. They pointed to old advertisements from the oil industry questioning the impact of climate change, as well as early 2000s statements undermining the science from one former Exxon
executive, and they tapped into a recent incident from earlier this year, in which an Exxon lobbyist was unknowingly taped saying that the company only used “talking points” on greener efforts to pacify lawmakers and the public. Exxon has disavowed the lobbyist’s remarks.
Public policy and environmental groups noted the significance of bringing the oil leaders, as well as the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, under oath about charges of misleading the public as President Biden and other global leaders ready to converge on Glasgow for an ambitious climate summit and as Biden on Thursday reframed his Build Back Better initiative to include $555 billion for climate programs that include renewable tax incentives, a reduced amount from initial efforts.
During a question-and-answer period, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat from New York, prompted ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods to say he personally participated in calls with lawmakers on the Democrats’ spending plan.
“I have,” Woods replied. But he said political donations were not discussed during his calls.
Read: ‘Multiple pathways to net-zero emissions with or without Congress,’ says a top Biden climate official
“Twenty-seven years ago, similar hearings featuring tobacco industry executives led to litigation by 52 U.S. states and territories and industry restitution to the public. The stakes this time are at least as high: trillions of dollars in predicted loss and destruction from climate change. Big Oil is due its Big Tobacco moment,” Patti Lynn, the executive director of nonprofit Corporate Accountability and Geoffrey Supran, a research fellow in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and director of climate accountability communication for the Climate Social Science Network, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
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In addition to Exxon and Chevron Corp.CVX, witnesses included the U.S. heads of European energy concerns BP PlcUK:BP BP and Royal Dutch ShellRDS.ARDS.B.
Mahoney said in a statement that the fossil fuel industry has had scientific evidence about the dangers of climate change since at least 1977. “Yet for decades, the industry spread denial and doubt about the harm of its products—undermining the science and preventing meaningful action on climate change even as the global climate crisis became increasingly dire, and its deadly impact on Americans increased,” she said.
At least one historian has stressed that earlier action could have reduced the scramble to slow climate change now.
“Back in 1979, Exxon had privately studied options for avoiding global warming. It found that with immediate action, if the industry moved away from fossil fuels and instead focused on renewable energy, fossil fuel pollution could start to decline in the 1990s and a major climate crisis could be avoided,” said Benjamin Franta, a history Ph. D student at Stanford University, in a paper on The Conversation.
“But the industry didn’t pursue that path. Instead, colleagues and I recently found that in the late 1980s, Exxon and other oil companies coordinated a global effort to dispute climate science, block fossil fuel controls and keep their products flowing,” he said.
‘Views have developed over time…’
Republican members largely embraced opening comments from the energy executives that the companies themselves are doing plenty to fold in renewable energy with traditional fossil fuels, exploring hydrogen and nuclear sources, and spending on the technology that eventually will make carbon capture scalable. Critics of carbon capture and storage, say it does little to dissuade the pumping from new fossil fuel sources. The executives also largely support carbon markets, or the swapping of emissions permits, and electric-vehicle infrastructure, they stressed at the hearing.
At least two Republican members noted a group of Democratic lawmakers and President Biden have urged OPEC to keep the spigot open to hold down costs, a position these committee members said was in marked contrast to the committee leadership insisting that U.S. sources of oil and gas be shut off to meet U.S. emissions targets. Biden said last week that he predicts high gasoline
prices into at least 2022.
“What does the gentleman want, $8 gasoline, $10 gasoline?” Rep. Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said of a Democrat’s comment.
Gasoline futures are up 66% in the year to date. West Texas Intermediate crude futures are up some 70% in the year to date, while natural gas futures are up 132% over the same span.
Read: This city just recorded the U.S.’s highest-ever average gasoline price
Khanna, the Democrat, meanwhile, pointed out the divide in the companies’ pro-EV stance while supporting 600-member trade group the American Petroleum Institute, which has worked to limit EV expansion and has advertised against a methane-leak fee on industry on Facebook and elsewhere.
“Ms. Watkins, Mr. [Mike] Summers of API is on the panel with us. Will you take the opportunity today to tell him that his opposition to electric vehicles is wrong,” Khanna asked Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell, who earlier confirmed the company backed EV growth.
“We are a member of API for a number of reasons… We have a number of conversations of course ongoing,” Watkins said.
Michael Worth, chair and CEO of Chevron, refuted the idea that Chevron is misleading its shareholders and the public on climate change.
“While our view 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 wrong,” he said.
Exxon’s Woods said his firm fully accepts that the combustion of fossil fuels is behind climate change, but that the energy market does not currently have adequate alternative sources to keep up with demand. He defended most past actions of his company as being in line with views on climate change at the time.
Exxon, he said, is pushing for carbon capture as one of the “biggest opportunities for innovation to address emissions.”
Suzanne Clark, president of U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said lawmakers should not dwell on climate-change history but make way for market-based policies, including carbon markets, that are “practical, predictable and durable” enough to survive election changes.
David Lawler, head of BP America, told lawmakers that BP started a transition to include more renewables as far back as 2005.
“Our progress hasn’t always been a straight line… but we view the path we’re on as a business imperative,” he said.