WASHINGTON (CN) – As Exxon faces trial in New York on accusations of misleading investors about how climate change would affect profits, House lawmakers signaled Wednesday the fossil-fuel giant could soon come into their crosshairs as experts testified about the company’s history of suppressing environmental science.
In 2015, InsideClimate News courted a Pulitzer Prize with a series of articles that said ExxonMobil scientists had internal confirmation as early as the 1970s about the effects of a warming planet, only to enlist think tanks, junk scientists and lobbyists in a disinformation campaign.
This disinformation campaign was at the heart of questioning by Democrats on Wednesday in the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. According to Chairman Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the hearing begins the process of public testimony from former Exxon employees.
“By 1997, scientific consensus that global warming was a threat to humanity was totally clinched,” former Exxon consultant Martin Hoffert told lawmakers.
The information he and other scientists amassed and shared internally was held up to “merciless” standards because scientists knew that the data could be used as the basis for other important research that may shape the world, Hoffert said.
One former Exxon scientist, Ed Garvey, was so confident in his findings that he launched a research program to study the full range of carbon dioxide effects on the planet over time.
“Exxon could have presented this truth to the public, redirected its resources and led the way to a global shift of alternative energy,” Raskin said. “Instead, it sold off renewable energy, doubled down on fossil fuels and along with Shell and Mobil, launched a sinister campaign of climate denial, undermining the work of its own scientists.”
Hoffert shared a 1982 model depicting the projection of carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuels and the effects of climate change associated with those levels: 37 years ago, Exxon accurately predicted that by 2019, Earth would hit a carbon concentration level of 415 parts per million and a temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius.
The dead-on accuracy prompted Hoffert to joke with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., that they were “excellent scientists back then.”
“You certainly were,” Ocasio-Cortez remarked. “And I presume they knew what the consequences of those changes would be?”
Hoffert, who has described Exxon’s secrecy as “immoral” before, doubled down Wednesday.
“I had good reason to say it,” he said.
Sharon Eubanks, the former lead counsel in the largest civil racketeering enforcement action ever filed – the landmark tobacco case, U.S. v. Philip Morris – also testified.
Eubanks painted a picture of déjà vu to lawmakers – the obfuscation techniques once used by Big Tobacco are similar to tactics used by Big Oil today, she said.
“It’s very similar. The government filed a racketeering case against the tobacco industry based on misrepresentation. Tobacco denied there was a consensus but at the same time their internal documents showed they knew there was a consensus” their products were harmful to public health, she said.
Raskin asked Eubanks if she believed Exxon would, like Philip Morris, rely on the “uncertainty of the science” argument.
“Can the suggestion of uncertainly actually constitute actionable fraud?” he asked.
“It can and it did in the case with tobacco,” Eubanks said, pointing to a memo written in 1998 by the American Petroleum Institute known as the “victory” memo. The document showed Exxon coordinated a multiyear, multimillion dollar strategy to sow uncertainty about climate science.
Eubanks reflected again on U.S. v Philip Morris.
“The U.S. prevailed in that case. Many people at the time said it was an inappropriate use of RICO but it was sustained all the way up on appeal,” she noted, referring to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Republicans bristled during the hearing and funneled most questions to Mandy Gunasekara, a former Environmental Protection Agency official.
She resigned from the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation in February and promptly co-founded Energy 45, a nonprofit group premised on President Donald Trump’s business-first energy agenda.
Gunasekara called lawsuits challenging the fossil industry “frivolous” and against American interests. Her testimony Wednesday was a nearly verbatim recitation of Trump’s April executive order on energy infrastructure limiting the ability of states to block projects like oil and natural gas pipelines.
At each opportunity, Gunasekara criticized renewable energy as a half measure that would never meet modern energy consumption.
Democrats were undeterred by the strategist. In a moment that drew huge laughs from the chamber, Ocasio-Cortez asked Gunasekara if she was aware that Energy 45 was a part of the CO2 Coalition funded by major right-wing donors Rebekah Mercer and Charles and David Koch.
“My engagement is not unwitting. It is active, inspired and educated,” Gunasekara said.
Ocasio-Cortez replied without hesitation, “Thank you for your testimony that you aren’t unwittingly working for the Koch brothers.”