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Big Oil defiant at House hearing on climate change disinformation

Evoking memories of infamous hearings where tobacco executives lied about the addictiveness of nicotine, fossil fuel companies testified before Congress on Thursday over their role in the climate crisis. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Showing defiance at the first congressional hearing exploring what was a yearslong promotion of disinformation about how fossil fuels contribute to climate change, executives representing the oil industry refused Thursday to make firm commitments to stop future disinformation efforts. 

The hearing comes amid a scandal brought on by senior lobbyists for Exxon Mobil who were caught dismissing public support of a carbon tax and targeting senators to weaken the Biden administration’s climate agenda.

Congressman Ro Khana, a California Democrat, pressed Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods on Thursday to acknowledge the false statements advanced by one of his predecessors, the erstwhile Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, who made false statements over the connection of fossil fuels to global warming before his 2005 retirement, refuting his own scientists’ research. 

“I really don't want to dwell on the past, but in the spirit of giving you the chance to turn the page for the company, I assume you would acknowledge that Mr. Raymond’s statement was a mistake and the company regrets it, correct,” Khana asked.  

Woods refused this opportunity saying, “Mr. Raymond’s statement was consistent with the science.” 

In questioning from New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another Democrat, Woods admitted to contacting members of Congress during negotiations over the infrastructure bill. 

Chevron CEO Michael Wirth also denied his company’s role in spreading disinformation. 

“While our 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,” Wirth said. 

The panel called to testify Thursday before the House Oversight Committee was made of oil industry executives from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP America and Shell.

“For far too long big oil has escaped accountability for its central role in bringing our planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe,” said Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the committee. “That ends today.” 

Maloney announced at the end of the hearing that the committee would be issuing subpoenas to the oil companies for documents they failed to provide.

“We are at a code red for climate, and I am committed to doing everything I can to help rescue this planet and save it for our children,” Maloney said after announcing the subpoenas.

Democrats on the committee likened the role of Big Oil in global warming to the tobacco industry’s role in promoting nicotine while knowing its dangers. 

“The fact is the disinformation campaign used for decades by the fossil fuel industry mirrors big tobacco itself in its playbook,” said Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat representing Washington, D.C. “It injects uncertainty into the public discourse, undermines the science, all while continuing to rake in economic benefits. Ultimately, the tobacco industry was held accountable for its deception, but Big Oil has so far escaped accountability for its longstanding climate denial.” 

Members further pressed the industry executives to make commitments on preventing future disinformation efforts. Khana specifically pressed the CEOs on lobbying efforts against electric vehicles. 

“I don't believe you purposely wanted to be out there spreading climate disinformation, but you're funding these groups, and they're really having an impact,” Khana said. “They're spending millions of dollars in Congress to kill electric vehicles. … And you could do something here: You can tell them that knock it off for the sake of the planet. You could end it. You could end that lobbying.” 

The oil executives did acknowledge the need to shift toward cleaner energy and listed various efforts to meet these goals. 

“We've set clear, verifiable short- and longer-term targets on our path to net zero,” said David Lawler, CEO of BP America Inc. “By 2025, we aim to grow our low carbon investments to $3 [billion] to $4 billion per year and then to $5 billion per year in 2030.” 

Exxon Mobil’s CEO said greenhouse gases can contribute to climate change.  

Exxon Mobil Chairman & CEO Darren Woods is interviewed on March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

“We know the combustion of oil and gas releases greenhouse gases and that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that increased greenhouse gases can contribute to the effects of climate change,” Woods said. 

Representatives pressed the oil companies on the percentage of their profits dedicated to clean energy and questioned advertisements they ran in prominent newspapers that sewed doubt over climate science. 

Maloney pressed the executives to commit to a pledge to stop spending money on efforts that oppose efforts to reduce emissions and address climate change. BP and Shell representatives did not directly take this pledge. 

Republicans on the committee took the hearing as an opportunity to rally against President Biden’s domestic policy agenda. They claimed Democrats were attempting to “demonize” the oil and gas industry and offered repeated apologies to the executives for the Democrats’ questions. 

“It's abhorrent that my colleagues across the aisle have called a so-called hearing today to demonize American industry whose products make modern life possible,” said Representative Clay Higgins from Louisiana. 

Representative Jody Hice from Georgia took aim at issues like the U.S.-Mexico border, the global supply chain and withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. 

“I want to thank Chairwoman Maloney for giving this committee yet another opportunity, another platform, to highlight the horrible, miserable, failed policies of the Biden administration, and the Democratic Party as a whole, and for also allowing this time yet again to exhibit the dereliction of duty of this committee to perform real oversight on pressing issues like the southern border, like global supply=chain issues and, like, the horrible withdrawal in Afghanistan,” Hice said. 

Congressman Jamie Raskin turned these lines of questioning around on Republicans, claiming the party was promoting propaganda and disinformation about climate change, Covid-19, the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

“Trump's party has turned the denial of facts, science and history into the standard operating procedure, and we see the ideological machinery of lies working overtime today,” Raskin said. 

The hearing comes as President Joe Biden released a framework for his domestic policy package that includes $555 billion in funding for clean energy and climate investments and as he heads to Europe for a summit in Scotland on climate change. 

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