Energy & Environment

Democrats hope to hold Big Oil ‘accountable’

Oil rig in sunset
Associated Press - Hasan Jamali

Democrats are gearing up for what could be a showdown with Big Oil during a congressional hearing Thursday.

Executives from Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron and Shell, as well as two major industry groups, will testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in a hearing on what Democrats have dubbed a “disinformation campaign” to prevent climate action. 

It comes after a long-term effort from lawmakers to get major energy firms to testify on Capitol Hill in recent months. 

Expected to testify are Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods, BP America Chairman David Lawler, Chevron CEO Michael Wirth, Shell Oil Company President Gretchen Watkins, American Petroleum Institute (API) President Mike Sommers and Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Suzanne Clark. 

Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) told The Hill in a Wednesday interview that she’s hoping to get “accountability” from the witnesses. 

“It was only when climate change became undeniable that the fossil fuel industry began an organized, concerted, billion-dollar campaign to greenwash their role in the crisis,” Maloney said. 

“We intend to hold them accountable and hope that they’ll be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem,” she added.

The chairwoman also described a continuing investigation, saying the event would be “the first of several hearings that we’re planning.”

The hearing comes amid some tension between the witnesses and the committee, as the hearing’s advisory said that the witnesses “failed to adequately comply” with requests for documents. 

Maloney elaborated on the accusation Wednesday, telling The Hill that “a lot of the documents that they gave us are already out there available to the public.”

“We asked specifically for internal communications of key executives, including CEOs, which we have not received, and we also asked specific questions about how much money they’re paying to front groups and the PR firms they hired to peddle … misinformation.”

The witnesses have said they are providing documents to the committee, although they did not provide specifics when presented with Maloney’s comments. 

A spokesperson for Exxon said it has “been in communication with committee staff for months and have cooperated with the request for documents.”

A spokesperson for Shell said the company “delivered to the Committee thousands of pages of documents that speak directly to Shell’s position on climate change over several decades, our strong support for the Paris Agreement, and our efforts to be an industry leader in the transition to a lower-carbon future.” Representatives for both BP and the API sounded similar notes, stating that they were working with the committee and have provided “thousands” of pages of documents. 

Lawmakers, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the leader of the panel’s Environment Subcommittee, have repeatedly invoked a 1994 hearing with tobacco executives, after which executives were probed for potentially lying. 

“For the first time in history, the industry will have to answer to Congress and the American public for lying about the realities of the climate crisis and the environmental damage caused by their products,” Khanna told The Hill in a statement Tuesday. 

“Finally, Big Oil will have to tell the truth about their continued practices of deception through third party organizations and shadow groups,” he added. “It’s my hope that our committee’s hearing will set up the fossil fuel industry’s Big Tobacco moment.”

When asked to elaborate on the Big Tobacco comparison, Maloney cited results. 

“After that hearing, there was concrete actions that started taking place to save people’s lives by putting out information about how harmful smoking was to peoples’ health,” she said. “We passed laws such as protecting people from secondary smoke in public places and federal property.”

She said she hopes that the country will repeal fossil fuel subsidies, implement renewable energy tax credits and create a fee for methane emissions. 

Lawmakers have long sought to bring the companies before Congress. In April, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) invited executives from Exxon Mobil, BP and Chevron to testify, and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) invited Exxon Mobil to appear at a May House Natural Resources Committee hearing. 

In May, Khanna floated a subpoena for fossil executives.

But the issue garnered significant attention following the June release of an undercover recording of Exxon Mobil lobbyist Keith McCoy. 

McCoy, unaware he was speaking to a Greenpeace activist, said the company has fought “against some of the science” on the role of fossil fuels in climate change.

“Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we hide our science? Absolutely not. Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true,” he said. 

The lobbyist, who is no longer with the company, also described its support for a carbon tax as a “talking point” and getting behind something they know will not pass. 

Exxon Mobil has disavowed McCoy’s comments, with CEO Woods saying, “Comments made by the individuals in no way represent the company’s position on a variety of issues, including climate policy and our firm commitment that carbon pricing is important to addressing climate change.

“The individuals interviewed were never involved in developing the company’s policy positions on the issues discussed,” Woods added.

But for lawmakers, the tapes were a signal to noise after years of lawsuits and journalism alleging energy companies knew of their contribution to climate change. In 2015, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times alleged that as early as the early 1990s, Exxon Mobil researchers were incorporating the projected effects of climate change into its planning.

States have similarly alleged the companies’ knowledge of climate change and an effort to mislead the public, citing evidence that goes as far back as the 1950s. 

For their part, the committee’s GOP members are expected to try to use the hearing to criticize the Biden administration’s policies — and are expected to bring an additional witness who they said was laid off from his job as a welder amid the cancellation of an important permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

“This is, you know, this is a huge issue: The cost of energy, right now. I think the American people are very upset, very dissatisfied, with the Biden administration’s climate and energy policies,” said ranking member Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.).

Tags Bernie Sanders Carolyn Maloney James Comer Ro Khanna

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