Fossil fuel executives who testified Thursday at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing focused on decades of coordinated industry misinformation refused to pledge that their companies will stop lobbying against efforts to combat the climate emergency driven largely by their businesses.
That joint refusal came in response to a challenge from Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform—who at the end of the hearing announced subpoenas for documents the fossil fuel companies have failed to provide.
Earlier in the hearing, Maloney had asked if the Big Oil CEOs would affirm that their organizations “will no longer spend any money, either directly or indirectly, to oppose efforts to reduce emissions and address climate change.”
Advocates for climate action pointed to the moment as yet another example of major polluters impeding planet-saving policy.
“The silence, non-answers, and repeated deflections from Big Oil’s Slippery Six exposed once and for all that the fossil fuel industry won’t back off its commitment to spreading climate disinformation and lobbying against climate action in order to protect their bottom line,” Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a statement.
“For the first time ever, fossil fuel executives were confronted under oath with the evidence of their industry’s decadeslong efforts to deceive the American people about climate change,” Wiles continued. “They not only refused to accept responsibility for lying about the catastrophic effects of their fossil fuels—they refused to stop funding efforts to spread disinformation and oppose climate action.”
“There is no longer any question: These companies knew and lied about their product’s role in the climate crisis, they continue to deceive, and they must be held accountable,” he added. “Today’s hearing and the committee’s ongoing investigation are important steps in those efforts.”
Maloney and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who chairs the panel’s Subcommittee on the Environment, had threatened to subpoena the industry leaders—collectively dubbed the #SlipperySix—if they declined to join the hearing, entitled, “Fueling the Climate Crisis: Exposing Big Oil’s Disinformation Campaign to Prevent Climate Action.”
The historic event included testimony from four industry executives—ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, BP America CEO David Lawler, Chevron CEO Michael Wirth, Shell Oil president Gretchen Watkins—and leaders from industry trade groups: American Petroleum Institute (API) president Mike Sommers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Suzanne Clark.
Kyle Herrig, president of the watchdog group Accountable.US, warned that “lawmakers should be wary of testimony from executives who have consistently put their industry’s bottom line over the health of the climate and the American people, no matter their rhetoric.”
Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, a pair of climate misinformation scholars at Harvard University, have warned of a “fossil fuel savior frame” that “downplays the reality and seriousness of climate change, normalizes fossil fuel lock-in, and individualizes responsibility.”
Both Oreskes and Fossil Free Media director Jamie Henn observed the presence of such framing during the hearing. Henn said that “it’s striking how much all these Big Oil execs come across as hostage-takers: ‘You need us. You can’t live without us. You’ll never escape.”
The fossil fuel witnesses’ initial remarks and responses to lawmakers’ questions were full of industry talking points. They advocated for “market-based solutions” like carbon taxes while failing to offer specifics. They also highlighted carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technology and hydrogen—both of which progressive green groups have denounced as “false solutions”—as key to reaching a “lower-carbon future.”
While suggesting a long-term need for oil and gas, the executives claimed to believe in anthropogenic climate change and said fossil fuel emissions “contribute” to global heating. Some critics called them out for using that term, rather than “cause” or “drive.”
Using the the word “contribute” rather than cause, said HuffPost environment reporter Chris D’Angelo, “downplays/dismisses the science, which shows they are the primary driver… Frankly, it’s climate denial—the very topic of this hearing.”
After inquiring about how long all four executives had been in their current roles, the panel’s ranking member, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), asked whether they had ever signed off on a climate disinformation campaign. They all said no—which experts and activists promptly disputed.
While progressives on the panel grilled the executives, Republicans repeatedly apologized to the CEOs for Democrats’ supposed “intimidation” efforts. Blasting the GOP lawmakers’ actions as “pathetic,” Henn said that “they really do see themselves as servants to Big Oil.”
The panel’s GOP members also tried to redirect attention to planet-heating activities of other countries, particularly China, and complained about President Joe Biden’s move to block the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, even inviting Neal Crabtree, a welder who lost his job when the project was canceled, to testify.
“The GOP’s strategy at this hearing is clear: It will not attempt to claim Big Oil *didn’t* mislead on climate,” tweeted climate reporter Emily Atkin of the HEATED newsletter. “Instead, the GOP is claiming Democrats are wasting time by focusing on climate change, and that it isn’t important to ‘everyday Americans.'”
Thanking Atkin for spotlighting the Republicans’ strategy, ClimateVoice noted that new polling shows the U.S. public does care about the issue. According to survey results released this week, a majority of Americans see climate as a problem of high importance to them and support Congress passing legislation to increase reliance on clean electricity sources.
Maloney, in her closing remarks Thursday, lamented that the hearing featured “much of the denial and deflection” seen in recent decades. She also called out the companies for not turning over requested documents, refusing to “take responsibility” for their contributions to the climate crisis, and continuing to fund groups like API. The chair vowed that her committee will continue its investigation.
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