Climate Policy

Lawmakers threaten Big Oil CEOs with subpoenas for climate disinformation campaign

Key Points
  • A hotly-anticipated hearing on Thursday was attended by a powerful group of energy executives from ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute.
  • At the end of the hearing, Carolyn B. Maloney, the Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, threatened to issue the witness companies with subpoenas to turn over financial documents and executive correspondences.
  • "Today's witnesses refused to take responsibility for big oil's decade long disinformation campaign," Maloney said.
An oil pump jack in a field with wind turbines in Corpus Christi, Texas, U.S., Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Eddie Seal | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A day-long Congressional hearing on 'climate disinformation' on Thursday, where executives of some of the world's largest oil companies defended themselves against lawmakers, ended with House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney threatening to issue subpoenas.

"Please know that I do not take this step lightly ... we are at 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. "We need to get to the bottom of the disinformation campaign and with these subpoenas we will."

Executives from the oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP America, defended themselves and their company's actions, saying they were in line with science of the day.

"Our understanding of the science has been aligned with the consensus of the scientific community as far back as 20 years ago," said Exxon CEO Darren Woods, responding to questioning from Maloney. "As science has evolved and developed, our understanding has evolved and developed, as has our work and position on the space."

Maloney said she did not get the information she and her lawmaker colleagues were looking for.

Lawmakers had requested documents from each of the big oil companies in attendance six weeks ago which were due Sept. 30. Lawmakers followed up before the due date and identified key categories of documents they wanted to see. The companies missed the deadline to produce the documents the group was looking to see, and lawmakers warned the companies they had until Oct. 25 or they would "face further action," Maloney said.

None of the six entities delivered "a substantial portion" of the "key documents" Maloney and the committee wanted to see. Instead, they produced "reams" of publicly available documents.

One group sent in 1,500 pages of documents printed from their own website and 4,000 pages of newsletters with industry press releases, Maloney said. Other companies delivered thousands of pages of publicly available annual reports and company postings on Facebook and LinkedIn, she said.

What Maloney wanted to see was detailed funding information "to understand their payments to shadow groups and to over 150 public relations companies and advertisements on social media," she said. Those documents were not provided, she said, and called those "payments that today's witnesses seem intent on continuing."

Rep. Ro Khanna, the chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, pressured Woods to say statements from a former Exxon executive, Lee Raymond, which denied a connection between fossil fuels and global warming were mistakes. While Khanna started his testimony saying, "I don't have any interest in being adversarial," the resulting back and forth with Woods got pretty tense.

"You know, when I make a statement, that's wrong, when most people make a statement, that's wrong, they say, 'Okay, it's a mistake. We regret it.' I'm just asking you for that," Khanna said.

"I don't think it's fair to judge something 25 years ago with what we've learned since," Woods said.

"I'm disappointed that you're not willing to say that something is a mistake. It doesn't inspire a lot of confidence about, you know, introspection and going forward. I'm surprised actually, I thought you would just say it's a mistake," Khanna said.

Khanna also asked executives on the spot to tell the American Petroleum Industry, the industry trade group, to stop opposing legislation to promote electric vehicles.

The executives would go so far as to say they are engaging with the API and don't agree with all of their talking points.

Big oil companies are still funding groups like the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade organization, which is getting in the way of reforms promoting electric vehicle use, Maloney said.

"I see no choice but to continue our committee's investigation until we see the truth," Maloney said.

"I have tried very hard to obtain this information voluntarily but the oil companies employ the same tactics they use for decades on climate policy — delay and obstruction. Well, that ends today," Maloney said. She added that she had draft subpoenas on hand.

In addition to emphasizing that their companies were operating in accordance with the science of the time, the executives also focused on the clean energy innovation they are doing.

"Just as when we were founded in 1879, we continue to believe in a power of human ingenuity to overcome obstacles and find responsible solutions for meeting the world's growing energy needs to deliver a better future for all," Chevron CEO Michael K. Wirth said at the hearing.

While the stated goal of the hearing was "to examine the fossil fuel industry's long-running, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming," according to a statement from the lawmakers' committee, the content of the hearing ranged far beyond climate disinformation to include a political referendum on gas prices, American energy independence, among many other topics.

But many of the hours of the hearing were filled with lawmakers taking the five minutes in the spotlight to address energy issues key to their own constituents.

For example, lawmakers brought up the high price of gas at the pump for consumers.

"It's clear that this hearing is part of a Democrat-led disinformation campaign to distract from the Biden administration's failed policies that are hurting average Americans," Virginia Foxx, a Republican Congressperson from North Carolina said.

"As of this morning $3.39 per gallon gas is the average price of gas in America," Foxx said. "This hurts families in my district and across the nation enough to decide which items on their grocery list they cannot buy, and what trips they can no longer afford to take."

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