The leaders of Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, Chevron and two oil industry trade groups are testifying before Congress on Thursday morning, where Democratic lawmakers are expected to blast the industry for spending decades downplaying, or outright denying, the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels causes climate change.
The hearing before the House Oversight Committee marks the first time members of Congress have directly questioned oil and gas executives under oath about their companies’ reported efforts to mislead the public about the causes of global warming. Along with the company leaders, Democrats also summoned representatives of two lobbying groups: the American Petroleum Institute and the Chamber of Commerce.
The hearing comes just as world leaders are preparing to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, this Sunday for the beginning of a major climate summit hosted by the United Nations. Under the terms of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, countries are expected to update their climate pledges, announcing their latest plans to reduce carbon emissions and pivot to cleaner sources of electricity by the end of the decade. As Biden was headed to the summit Thursday, it was still unclear what climate measures would make it into congressional Democrats’ final budget bill.
Before the hearing, Democratic lawmakers said they hoped to model the event after the 1994 House inquiry into the tobacco industry. The drama of that hearing was captured in a famous photograph of the top executives of the seven largest American tobacco companies raising their hands before Congress to swear that cigarettes aren’t addictive.
At the time, there was solid scientific research establishing the health risks of smoking and executives’ lies outraged lawmakers, who went to work on new tobacco regulations.
Today, there is virtually no debate among scientists that the planet is overheating, in large part because the burning of coal, oil and gas is spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But whether Thursday’s hearing will inspire lawmakers to crack down on carbon emissions from oil and gas companies remains to be seen.
In their initial remarks Thursday morning, some of the executives denied lying about the causes of climate change, while others avoided addressing the allegation.
Michael Wirth, Chevron’s chief executive, said in his prepared remarks that, while the company’s “views on climate change have developed over time,” “any suggestion that Chevron is engaged in an effort to spread disinformation and mislead the public on these complex issues, is simply wrong.”
Democrats are likely to focus their questions on accusations that the oil industry and its powerful trade organizations have spent billions on lobbying and deceptive marketing campaigns intended to weaken or kill legislation to address climate change. They will point to a secret recording, which became public earlier this year, in which an Exxon lobbyist talked openly about efforts to dilute Biden’s climate agenda and admitted that the company had funded third-party groups with the same goal. The lobbyist thought he was talking to a job recruiter; he was actually being recorded by Greenpeace UK.
“The industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change,” Democratic lawmakers wrote last month in letters to the oil executives.
Some Republicans on the committee criticized the hearing as political theater.
In his opening remarks, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the senior Republican, called the hearing a “distraction” and said the committee should instead direct its investigative powers at the Biden administration’s economic and environmental policies.
More than the other oil companies, Exxon has a well-documented history of funding both pioneering research into climate change and large-scale campaigns that undermined those scientific findings. Reporting by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News in 2015 found that, throughout much of the 1980s, Exxon funded workshops and academic research on climate change. But, by 1990, its leaders changed tack after American and international regulators began calling for cuts in carbon emissions from fossil fuels, threatening the company’s business model.
Over the next 15 years, Exxon spent millions of dollars on advertisements and other messaging claiming that the science behind climate change was still unsettled and that regulations to curb global warming were unnecessary, The Times’ investigation found.
Subsequent reports, including a 2019 study by scientists at Harvard, George Mason and Bristol universities, concluded that the oil industry as a whole had funded similar campaigns to undermine public confidence in climate research.
Biden announced earlier this year that the U.S. would slash its emissions by at least half by 2030. But Democrats’ proposals to meet that goal have been diluted over the ensuing months, as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona objected to measures that would speed America’s transition away from oil, gas and coal.
A proposal to create a clean energy program that would reward utilities for generating more of their power from wind and solar energy has been stripped from Democrats’ original $3.5-trillion budget bill to satisfy Manchin. Democrats’ alternative pathway to address climate change, a carbon tax on polluters, is also dead. That has left a set of tax credits for solar and wind projects and electric vehicles as the most significant remaining climate proposal in the package — but this also faces opposition.
The oil and gas industry’s campaign to defeat the president’s climate policies has taken aim at Democrats in Congress facing tough reelection campaigns through Facebook and TV ads in order to preserve tax breaks for fossil fuel producers.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), who sits on the Oversight Committee, told Reuters in a recent interview that Thursday’s hearing is the beginning of a yearlong investigation into the industry’s role in causing climate change.
“The idea is for them to admit to the American people what they have done,” Khanna said.