Energy & Environment

Oil companies downplay early climate knowledge under fire from Dems

Associated Press - Jacquelin Martin/Associated Press - Bill Clark

Leaders of the U.S. oil industry refused to concede that their companies had ever misled the public about the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming during a tense House hearing on Thursday. 

The hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee was billed as “Fueling the Climate Crisis: Exposing Big Oil’s Disinformation Campaign to Prevent Climate Action,” and Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) set the tone early. 

“I want each of you to affirm that your organization will no longer spend any money either directly or indirectly to oppose efforts to reduce emissions and address climate change,” she said.  

The executives did not directly say they would do so, and Maloney accused one of them of filibustering. She soon moved on after declaring none of them were willing to take her “pledge.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chair of the House Oversight Committee’s environmental subcommittee, repeatedly pressed Exxon CEO Darren Woods on statements by then-CEO Lee Raymond in 2002, in which he denied a link between fossil fuel combustion and climate change. 

These comments, Khanna noted, came decades after 1978 internal reports from Exxon scientists warning of such a link.

While Woods acknowledged the connection between burning fossil fuels and warmer temperatures, he maintained Raymond’s comments had been consistent with then-current science despite the internal research.

Meanwhile, he also claimed that the company didn’t have any “unique” understanding of climate science.

“I am not aware of any unique understanding that we had on the science. We engaged with the broader community and worked with them to advance our own understanding and as time passed and scientific understanding evolved, so did our position,” he said. 

Numerous ongoing lawsuits and news reports have alleged that the companies knew about climate change for decades, but took a contrary position in public. 

BP America Chairman David Lawler stated that his company was aware as early as the 1980s of reports of climate change, but said there was “debate.”

“There was a lot of science, there was a lot of debate that was published during that time period, but I would say that BP focused on the landmark IPCC study in 1996,” Lawler said, referring to the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

The BP and Exxon executives testified alongside top brass from Shell, Chevron and key lobbying groups the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Chamber of Commerce. 

Maloney announced at the end of the hearing that she would be issuing subpoenas to the oil interests, which she said failed to provide requested financial documents and internal communications. 

“I do not take this step lightly,” she said. “We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas, we will.”

Speaking with reporters during a recess, Khanna said that future hearings remain on the table, with potentially expanded witness lists, including social media executives whose platforms may have spread climate disinformation.

Khanna also addressed Woods declining to address the statements from his predecessor denying fossil fuels’ role in climate change.

“I’m surprised he chose to defend that statement as consistent with the science,” Khanna said. “I don’t see how you say that was consistent with the science that Exxon had.”

Asked if Woods had lied under oath, Khanna responded, “He’s going to have to explain … because Raymond’s comment is directly in contradiction with the 1978 report.” 

The Hill has reached out to Exxon for comment.

During the hearing, Democrats also sought to get the executives to make commitments to leave API, a key trade group, over issues including its resistance to electrifying the United States vehicle fleet. 

“Would any of you take the opportunity to look at API and say stop it? Any of you?” Khanna asked. 

“What I’ll commit to is continuing to be an active member of the API,” said Shell President Gretchen Watkins, noting that “many” issues are discussed within the group. 

The lawmakers repeatedly sought to compare the hearing to a 1994 examination of tobacco executives. But a major difference was that in this case the companies now acknowledge the impacts that burning fossil fuels have on climate change, while in 1994, executives denied that cigarettes were addictive

Democrats also attempted to highlight the differences between companies’ rhetoric and actions on climate change, honing in on the lobbying priorities of the companies and trade groups. 

The committee released an analysis finding that the four companies and the American Petroleum Institute reported 4,597 instances of lobbying since 2015, but only eight instances of lobbying on the Paris Climate Agreement, compared to hundreds of instances related to corporate tax breaks.  

Their analysis also found that relatively little of the companies’ overall spending was on low carbon investments, alleging that from 2010 to 2018, Exxon invested just 0.22 percent of its capital expenditures on low carbon projects, while BP devoted 2.3 percent. 

In response, an API spokesperson said that the memo is “false,” highlighting the company’s lobbying on hydrogen, carbon capture and carbon pricing — though some Democrats have expressed skepticism about whether hydrogen and carbon capture are effective solutions. 

“Since we released our Climate Action Framework earlier this year, we’ve consistently advocated for carbon pricing as the most impactful way to reduce emissions and a better approach to the punitive new taxes and restrictions on energy proposed as part of reconciliation,” said spokesperson Bethany Aronhalt in an email. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) sought to represent the relative size of Shell’s spending on renewables visually — using two jars of M&Ms to contrast with the company’s outsized spending on other, non-renewable operations. 

The committee’s Republican minority, meanwhile, had few questions for the witnesses on climate change, but accused the majority of attempting to intimidate the executives, tying what they called the Biden administration’s hostility to fossil fuels to rising energy prices.  

Rep. Virginia Fox (R-N.C.), took her time during the hearing to criticize the Biden administration for canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and what she described as “discouraging” domestic oil exploration.

“The title of this hearing suggests that ‘big oil’ is running a disinformation campaign designed to prevent action on the climate,” she said. “However, it’s 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.”

The sole Republican witness was Neil Crabtree, a welder who lost his job on the canceled Keystone XL pipeline and has been a vocal critic of the Biden administration.

Tags Big Oil Carolyn Maloney Climate change House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Katie Porter Ro Khanna Virginia Foxx
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