Oil company CEOs duck and weave in climate change hearing

·Senior Climate Editor
·7 min read

Congressional Democrats may have hoped that the House Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday with oil industry CEOs about the science of climate change would yield an epic moment that revealed their mendacity, akin to the famous hearings in 1994 when top tobacco executives testified under oath that nicotine is not addictive.

If so, they were probably disappointed. Democratic lawmakers’ irritation with the witnesses was palpable as they struggled to get the executives to either make demonstrably false claims about climate science or to admit to their respective companies' past attempts to mislead the public about the matter — or even their current efforts to obstruct action to mitigate climate change.

Instead, they testified via video that their companies were simply less well-informed in the past, but that they have always followed the science.

The witnesses of a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing
The witnesses of a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

“While our views on climate change have developed over time, any suggestion that Chevron is engaged in an effort to spread disinfo and mislead the public on these issues is simply wrong,” said Chevron CEO Michael Wirth in his opening statement.

The tobacco precedent was clearly on the minds of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, both of whom invoked it in their opening remarks.

“Twenty-seven years ago, seven tobacco executives appeared before Congress,” Maloney said. “Rather than admitting the truth about their product, the executives lied. This was a watershed moment in the public’s understanding of Big Tobacco. 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.”

No such turn was taken. None of the witnesses, who included the presidents or CEOs of ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute (API), denied the scientific consensus that burning the products they sell causes global warming. But they also steadfastly refused lawmakers’ entreaties to admit that they were wrong to claim publicly for decades that human-induced climate change wasn’t necessarily occurring, even as their own internal scientists sometimes said otherwise.

Darren Woods
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods testifies via video. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

When Maloney asked ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods about advertisements casting doubt on climate science that ran as recently as the early 2000s — decades after internal documents show Exxon was well aware of the greenhouse gas effect — Woods refused to admit wrongdoing. “That was consistent with what the scientific consensus was at the time,” he insisted. “And as time has progressed, we’ve continued to maintain a position that has evolved with science and is today consistent with the science.”

Nor were they willing to participate in Maloney’s and Khanna’s effort to get them to oppose their own industry’s lobbying against government action to facilitate a transition to cleaner energy sources. When Maloney asked for a promise to stop opposing climate action, Shell president Gretchen Watkins claimed her company already supports climate action, even though the groups to which it belongs, including API and the Chamber of Commerce, have lobbied hard against the climate provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal.

Khanna pleaded with Watkins to ask API CEO Mike Sommers to stop lobbying against a fee on oil and gas producers for leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“You say you're for a well-crafted methane fee. You know who's advertising against a methane fee? API!” said Khanna. “Can you please, please ask API to stop advertising against the methane fee!”

Watkins, however, demurred. She said her company doesn’t always agree with every stance the trade association takes, something BP U.S. Lower 48 Onshore CEO David Lawler — whose company also tries to position itself as enlightened on environmental matters — emphasized.

David Lawler, CEO of BP U.S. Lower 48 Onshore business
David Lawler, CEO of BP's U.S. Lower 48 Onshore business. (Joe Amon/Denver Post via Getty Images)

This frustrating outcome was expected even by the committee chairs who called the witnesses themselves. In his opening statement, Khanna preemptively warned the public that the witnesses would disingenuously claim to support climate science.

“You will say your companies have contributed to academic research on climate science,” Khanna said, nominally to the assembled executives. “That is true, but that is not the issue at hand. Despite your early knowledge of climate science, your companies and the trade associations you fund chose time and again to loudly raise doubts about the science and downplay the severity of the crisis.”

Even some of the Democrats’ usually effective questioners were unable to draw blood. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., got Woods of ExxonMobil to admit that he has spoken to members of Congress about the budget and infrastructure bills currently under consideration, but when she asked whether campaign donations have ever come up in those conversations, he unequivocally said no. She also tried unsuccessfully to get him to admit that increased fossil fuel production increases his compensation.

Ultimately, she pivoted to speaking broadly about the issue at hand. “Some of us have to actually live the future that you all are setting on fire for us,” she told the witnesses. “We do not have the privilege or luxury of lobbyist spin.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In what was probably the most compelling exchange of the day, Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., used candy in Mason jars to illustrate the discrepancy between what Shell, which claims to support renewable energy investment, spends on developing renewables such as wind and solar versus oil and gas. Porter also highlighted that Shell has not lived up to its past promises of renewable energy spending and cleverly used Watkins’s own words from her opening statement — in which she called climate change “one of the defining challenges of our time” and said renewable energy development is a “huge undertaking” for the company — against her.

"Ms. Watkins, does this look like a ‘huge undertaking’ to you?" Porter asked, brandishing an almost empty jar. “To me, this does not look like an adequate response to ‘one of the defining challenges of our time.’ This is greenwashing. Shell is trying to fool people into thinking it’s addressing the climate crisis when it’s actually continuing to put money into fossil fuels.”

In contrast with both the Democratic lawmakers’ grilling and the fossil fuel executives’ modest evasions, the Republican committee members on Thursday treated the witnesses with a deference bordering on idolatry.

“The oil and gas industry provide good-paying jobs and help Americans reliably heat their houses, power their cars and keep the lights on through the storm when the sun doesn’t shine,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C.

Rep. Jim Jordan
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing last week. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

“God bless Chevron for saying they’ll increase production,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, after Wirth, the Chevron CEO, was asked why his company intends to produce more gas and oil when the climate crisis necessitates drawing down dependence on fossil fuels.

"You need an apology because what I witnessed today was just rank intimidation by the chair of this committee,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., referring to Khanna’s attempt to get the witnesses to pledge to stop funding advocacy campaigns opposing action to address climate change. “Trying to get you to pledge on what you're going to spend your money on is a gross violation of the First Amendment,” Donalds claimed, inaccurately.

The only Republican-called witness was a worker who was laid off from a job building the Keystone XL oil pipeline extension, a project President Biden has stopped from moving forward. The witness was used to illustrate the talking point, repeated often, that oil and gas companies provided jobs that outweighed concerns about the warming planet and whether the companies lied to the public.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the ranking Republican on the committee, argued that the whole endeavor was illegitimate. “The purpose of this hearing is clear: to deliver partisan theater for primetime news,” he said.

Whether or not that was truly the hearing’s only purpose, more dramatic theater was certainly something Democrats would have liked to see happen.

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