Report

Big Oil Gets Grilled by Congress Over Climate Disinformation

Major oil executives insisted that they haven’t misled the public about the link between fossil fuels and climate change.

By , an intern at Foreign Policy.
U.S. House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney
U.S. House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney presides over a hearing in Washington on Oct. 7. Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

On Thursday, top executives from Exxon Mobil, BP America, Chevron, and Shell—some of America’s largest oil companies—testified for the first time in Congress on their alleged role in promoting disinformation about the part fossil fuels play in driving climate change.

The hearing before the House Committee on Oversight is part of a Democratic plan to take stronger action on climate change, coming just before the start of the big climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and the same week that a new report showed that global greenhouse gas emissions are at record-high levels. The main oil lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also testified.

The House panel sent letters to oil executives last month outlining the lengths those companies have gone to in order to deceive the public about climate science. The letters argued that Big Oil’s tactics are similar to those of Big Tobacco, which culminated in a series of landmark congressional hearings in the early 1990s. Rep. Ro Khanna, who chairs the oversight subcommittee on the environment, told E&E News that the hearing is intended to be the “start of the investigation” into the industry’s role in the climate crisis.

On Thursday, top executives from Exxon Mobil, BP America, Chevron, and Shell—some of America’s largest oil companies—testified for the first time in Congress on their alleged role in promoting disinformation about the part fossil fuels play in driving climate change.

The hearing before the House Committee on Oversight is part of a Democratic plan to take stronger action on climate change, coming just before the start of the big climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and the same week that a new report showed that global greenhouse gas emissions are at record-high levels. The main oil lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also testified.

The House panel sent letters to oil executives last month outlining the lengths those companies have gone to in order to deceive the public about climate science. The letters argued that Big Oil’s tactics are similar to those of Big Tobacco, which culminated in a series of landmark congressional hearings in the early 1990s. Rep. Ro Khanna, who chairs the oversight subcommittee on the environment, told E&E News that the hearing is intended to be the “start of the investigation” into the industry’s role in the climate crisis.

Committee leaders wrote that “the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change.” All of the CEOs have denied those allegations—and continued in the same vein at the hearing on Thursday.

Khanna grilled the executives, trying to get them to acknowledge their role in undermining the fight against climate change. He zeroed in on Exxon especially, bringing up disproven statements about climate change that the company’s former executives touted in years past. But Exxon CEO Darren Woods dodged and dissembled.

“Can you just acknowledge that it was a mistake?” Khanna asked.

“I don’t think it’s fair to judge something [that was said] 25 years ago with what we’ve learned [since],” Woods replied.

“I’m disappointed you won’t even acknowledge it as a mistake,” Khanna retorted.

None of the executives outright denied the existence of the climate crisis. But the hearing was intended to address the systematic disinformation about climate change the companies are accused of sowing for years. Republicans on the panel used the hearing to target the Democratic legislative agenda, arguing that the oil companies were being pilloried for providing energy the United States needed.

Rep. Kevin Brady, a Republican, said the industry “has already proved” that it can produce clean energy, citing the transition to natural gas as a low-emissions alternative—even though methane leaks from natural gas production make it far less clean than its renewable energy counterparts. Another Republican, Rep. Garret Graves, implied the Democrats were trying to ban natural gas rather than ferret out decades of orchestrated disinformation.

As the United States and other major economies struggle to curb emissions enough to even come close to meeting the targets outlined in the 2015 Paris climate accord, Democrats hope to undermine Big Oil’s ability to stymie legislative action on climate change. The Biden administration this week unveiled its latest compromise legislation that includes more than $500 billion in incentives to promote cleaner sources of energy and achieve the administration’s goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. 

But the White House also recently called on OPEC (and U.S. oil companies) to increase oil production, citing a need for more supply as oil prices hit near seven-year highs—highlighting the contradictions in an administration that seeks to be a climate crusader while battling high energy prices and declining consumer confidence. 

The oil industry’s knowledge about climate change dates back to at least 1977, according to a landmark 2015 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists titled “The Climate Deception Dossiers.” The report, based on internal oil-company documents, confirmed that companies were aware of the role of fossil fuel combustion in causing climate change for decades and actively misled the public about climate change. The French oil major Total also knew about the risks of climate change and spent decades downplaying the threat, a new study found.

The companies’ efforts to understand climate change internally, and in particular how it could harm their business models, were quite substantial. In the 1970s and 1980s, the American Petroleum Institute put together a fact-finding task force to come to grips with the emerging science, and it even investigated ways for the companies to reduce carbon emissions. However, none of those efforts were public at the time. 

By the 1990s, however, the industry abandoned its research and disbanded the task force, and Big Oil began focusing its efforts on making climate change a nonissue by sowing doubt through large donations to think tanks and other organizations to discredit climate science and block efforts at emissions restrictions.

Exxon alone spent $30 million funding think tanks such as the Heartland Institute—a libertarian outfit that rejects climate science—and other research endeavors that sought to downplay the overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes and consequences of climate change. Big Oil as a whole funded over 91 think tanks in total. Major U.S. oil companies spent an estimated $2 billion lobbying Congress between 2000 and 2016 to fight against climate change initiatives, in addition to billions of dollars more in advertising.

In 2019, New York state brought Exxon to trial, arguing that it misled investors by downplaying the risks of climate change. Exxon won that trial, as the judge ruled that the company had not misled investors. But Exxon and other oil companies face similar legal threats in other states.

The industry has also sought to rebrand itself as investing in renewable energy and other cleaner sources of power. BP, the British oil major, famously branded itself as “Beyond Petroleum” in the early 2000s; Total, the French giant, renamed itself TotalEnergies this year. Environmental activists contend that the publicity drive is “greenwashing,” which vastly overstates the clean-energy investment made by big oil companies.

“I agree climate change is one of the biggest challenges in the world today, which is why at Shell, we’re in action,” said Gretchen Watkins, the president of Shell, trying to show her company’s commitment to green energy. Michael Wirth, the CEO of Chevron, deflected and said that “We believe in the power of human ingenuity … to deliver a better future for all.”

While the oil executives stressed the importance of fossil fuels to the U.S. and global economy, Democrats homed in on their core message: the inconsistencies between what companies said privately about climate change and what they said publicly.

“I am asking you, Mr. Woods, that you agree that there is an inconsistency between what the CEO told the public [in the 1990s] versus what the Exxon scientists said,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the chair of the oversight panel, asked the Exxon executive. She also sought—in vain—for a promise from the oil executives that they would stop funding efforts to stall climate action.

“Chairwoman, no, I do not agree there is an inconsistency,” Woods said.

“I think the quotes speak for themselves,” Maloney said.

Anna Weber is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @annasweber

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