Oil giants deny spreading disinformation on climate change
Published Thursday, October 28, 2021 7:36AM EDT Last Updated Thursday, October 28, 2021 6:16PM EDT
Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, testifies via video conference during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change, Oct. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
WASHINGTON -- Top executives of ExxonMobil and other oil giants denied spreading disinformation about climate change as they sparred Thursday with congressional Democrats over allegations that the industry concealed evidence about the dangers of global warming.
Testifying at a landmark House hearing, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said the company "has long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change, and it has devoted significant resources to addressing those risks."
The oil giant's public statements on climate "are and have always been truthful, fact-based ... and consistent" with mainstream climate science, Woods said.
Democrats immediately challenged the statements by Woods and other oil executives, accusing them of engaging in a decades-long, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming.
"They are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee.
She was referring to a 1994 hearing with tobacco executives who famously testified that they didn't believe nicotine was addictive. The reference was one of several to the tobacco hearing as Democrats sought to pin down oil executives on whether they believe in climate change and that burning fossil fuels such as oil contributes to global warming.
Maloney said at the end of the nearly seven-hour hearing that she will issue subpoenas for documents requested by the committee but not furnished by the oil companies.
Republicans accused Democrats of grandstanding over an issue popular with their base as U.S. President Joe Biden's climate agenda teeters in Congress.
Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the top Republican on the oversight panel, called the hearing a "distraction from the crises that the Biden administration's policies have caused," including gasoline prices that have risen by $1 per gallon since January.
"The purpose of this hearing is clear: to deliver partisan theater for primetime news," Comer said.
The hearing comes after months of public efforts by Democrats to obtain documents and other information on the oil industry's role in stopping climate action over multiple decades. The fossil fuel industry has had scientific evidence about the dangers of climate change since at least 1977, yet spread denial and doubt about the harm its products cause -- undermining science and preventing meaningful action on climate change, Maloney and other Democrats said.
"Do you agree that (climate change) is an existential threat? Yes or no?" Maloney asked Shell Oil president Gretchen Watkins.
"I agree that this is a defining challenge for our generation, absolutely," Watkins replied.
Watkins, Woods and other oil executives said they agreed with Maloney on the existence and threat posed by climate change, but they refused her request to pledge that their companies would not spend money -- either directly or indirectly -- to oppose efforts to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
"We're pledging to advocate for low-carbon policies that do in fact take the company and the world to net-zero" carbon emissions, said BP America CEO David Lawler.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who leads a subcommittee on the environment, said he hopes "Big Oil will not follow the same playbook as Big Tobacco" in misrepresenting the facts to Congress.
"As I'm sure you realize, that didn't turn out too well for them," Khanna said. "These companies must be held accountable."
The committee released a memo Thursday charging that the oil industry's public support for climate reforms has not been matched by meaningful actions, and that the industry has spent billions of dollars to block reforms. Oil companies frequently boast about their efforts to produce clean energy in advertisements and social media posts accompanied by sleek videos or pictures of wind turbines.
Maloney and other Democrats have focused particular ire on Exxon, after a senior lobbyist for the company was caught in a secret video bragging that Exxon had fought climate science through "shadow groups" and had targeted influential senators in an effort to weaken Biden's climate agenda, including a a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a sweeping climate and social policy bill currently moving through Congress.
In the video, Keith McCoy, a former Washington-based lobbyist for Exxon, dismissed the company's public expressions of support for a proposed carbon tax on fossil fuel emissions as a "talking point."
McCoy's comments were made public in June by the environmental group Greenpeace U.K., which secretly recorded him and another lobbyist in Zoom interviews. McCoy no longer works for the company, Exxon said last month.
Woods, Exxon's chairman and chief executive, has condemned McCoy's statements and said the company stands by its commitment to work on finding solutions to climate change.
Chevron CEO Michael Wirth also denied misleading the public on climate change. "Any suggestion that Chevron has engaged in an effort to spread disinformation and mislead the public on these complex issues is simply wrong," he said.
Maloney and Khanna sharply disputed that. They compared tactics used by the oil industry to those long deployed by the tobacco industry to resist regulation "while selling products that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans."
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., accused the oil industry of "greenwashing" its climate pollution through misleading ads that focus on renewable energy rather than on its core business, fossil fuels. Shell spends nearly 10 times as much money on oil, gas and chemical production than it does on renewables such as wind and solar power, Porter said, citing the company's annual report.
"Shell is trying to fool people into thinking that it's addressing the climate crisis when what it's actually doing is continuing to put money into fossil fuels," she told Watkins.
While U.S. leaders and the oil industry rightly focus on lowering carbon emissions, the world consumes 100 million barrels of oil per day -- an amount not likely to decrease any time soon, said Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's top lobbying group.
The industry group supports climate action, Sommers added, "yet legislative proposals that punitively target American industry will reverse our nation's energy leadership, harm our economy and American workers, and weaken our national security."