House Panel Expands Inquiry Into Climate Disinformation by Oil Giants

Sep 16, 2021
In The News

The House Oversight Committee has widened its inquiry into the oil and gas industry’s role in spreading disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming, calling on top executives from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, as well as the lobby groups American Petroleum Institute and the United States Chamber of Commerce, to testify before Congress next month.

The move comes as Washington is wrestling with major climate legislation intended to slash the nation’s reliance on oil and gas, and in a year of climate disasters that have affected millions of Americans. Raging wildfires in the West burned more than two million acres, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in the United States left a path of destruction from Louisiana to New York City, and heat waves smashed records and delivered life-threatening conditions to regions unaccustomed to extreme heat.

Thursday’s demands from the powerful Oversight Committee put senior executives from some of the world’s largest oil companies at the center of an investigation into the role their industry has played in undermining the scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is a root cause of global warming.

“We are deeply concerned that the fossil fuel industry has reaped massive profits for decades while contributing to climate change that is devastating American communities, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and ravaging the natural world,” read the letter to Darren Woods, the Exxon chief executive.

“We are also concerned that to protect those profits, the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change,” the letter said.

The letters were sent to the companies and groups Thursday morning, and also requested information including internal documents and emails on climate policy going back to 2015 related to the companies’ and groups’ efforts to undermine climate policy.

Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat of New York, and the committee chairman, said she “intends to hold the fossil fuel industry to account for its central role in causing and exacerbating this global emergency.”

Bethany Aronhalt, a spokeswoman for API, a powerful industry voice, said that the group “welcomes the opportunity to testify” and that its priorities were putting a price on carbon, regulating methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas released in oil and gas production, and “reliably producing American energy.” The API is lobbying Congress against a tax on methane, saying it would prefer federal regulations on emissions.

BP said it was also advocating for policies such as carbon pricing and regulating methane that would help the world meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the pact between nations to try to limit global temperature increase to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of 1990 levels.

Matt Letourneau, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the House committee’s leadership had “a fundamental misunderstanding” of the Chamber’s positions on climate change. “We’ve been working hard with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to enact climate solutions,” he said.

Other recipients of the letters didn’t respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

The inquiry, modeled on the tobacco hearings of the 1990s that paved the way for far tougher nicotine regulations, sets up a showdown between progressive Democrats pressing for action to fight climate change and an industry that faces increasing scrutiny. A wave of lawsuits filed by cities and states across the country has accused oil and gas companies of engaging in decades-long, multimillion-dollar campaigns to downplay warnings from their own scientists about the effects burning fossil fuels has on the climate. And a diverse cast of actors, from environmentalists and children’s rights advocates to corporate shareholders, are pressing the energy giants to diversify away from oil and gas, and reduce their carbon footprints.

The burning of fossil fuels like oil and gas releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it is a major contributor to global warming because it traps heat. In addition, oil and gas production leads to the release of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.

Limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require the world, among other measures, to immediately stop approving new oil and gas fields, according to a scenario put forward by the world’s leading energy agency. That is a step that no major fossil fuel company has embraced.

The committee had initially focused on Exxon after a senior lobbyist at the oil giant was caught in a secret video recording, made public in July, saying that Exxon had fought climate science through “shadow groups” and had targeted influential senators in an effort to weaken President Biden’s climate agenda. Several of those senators have said the lobbyist exaggerated their relationship or that they had no dealings with him.

Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat of California who chairs the Subcommittee on the Environment, said the continued lobbying on the Hill by the oil and gas industry makes the October hearings “urgent.”

Industry lobbyists have been working to influence climate provisions in two key pieces of legislation, the $3.5 trillion budget bill and $1 trillion infrastructure bill. After lobbying by groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled a draft tax overhaul this week that protects fossil fuel subsidies, rebuffing calls by President Biden to get rid of the incentives, which amount to tens of billions of dollars a year.

“Part of the timing of this is to make sure that they know they’re under a magnifying glass when it comes to any engagement, and running interference, with the climate agenda of Congress and the Senate,” Mr. Khanna said.

In a sign of the divisions within the Democratic Party over the Exxon revelations, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York and another House Oversight Committee member, wrote on Twitter on Sept. 2 that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia “has weekly huddles w/ Exxon & is one of many senators who gives lobbyists their pen to write so-called ‘bipartisan’ fossil fuel bills.”

Asked on Sunday’s television show “State of the Union” if he met weekly with Exxon, Sen. Manchin said “Absolutely not.”

Sen. Manchin didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday. A spokesman previously said that “Senator Manchin and those who work for him have always had an open-door policy.”

The letters from the oversight committee give the fossil fuel executives a week to say whether they intend to appear before the panel. Depending on the response from the recipients, the committee said that it could take additional steps, including issuing subpoenas.