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Oil companies face 'big tobacco moment' in Congress over their climate policies

House Oversight Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., says oil companies who have said they are working to use greener technologies have also disseminated misinformation about climate change.
House Oversight Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., says oil companies who have said they are working to use greener technologies have also disseminated misinformation about climate change.

House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., called the CEOs of four oil companies to appear and answer questions about climate change. She said the companies have spread misinformation for decades.

Updated October 28, 2021 at 8:17 AM ET

The House Oversight Committee will hear from chief executives of four global oil companies on Thursday as part of its investigation into what Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., called the industry's decades-long "climate disinformation" efforts about the impact of fossil fuels on global warming.

The CEOs — Darren Woods of ExxonMobil, David Lawler of BP America, Michael Wirth of Chevron, Gretchen Watkins of Shell — as well as Mike Sommers from the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's trade association, and Suzanne Clark from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will appear.

It's the first time all are testifying together. Maloney, who chairs the oversight committee, compared the hearing to the one in 1994 when the CEOs of all the large tobacco companies appeared under oath and answered questions about industry practices. During that hearing the witnesses argued smoking wasn't addictive, but admitted publicly the harmful health effects of nicotine.

"It's time for the American people to hear directly from the top fossil fuel executives about how they manufactured and concealed a global emergency while reaping trillions in corporate profit," Maloney told NPR.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who chairs the environment subcommittee, cited the same comparison in an interview with NPR, saying, "it's going to be the big tobacco moment for oil."

But unlike the tobacco hearing, there will be no television moment of all four CEOs sitting at the same table and being sworn in with lawmakers pressing them from the dais. The witnesses are all appearing remotely — a dynamic due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats plan to focus on climate disinformation

Maloney and Khanna sent lettersto all the oil companies and business organizations in September seeking information about marketing, lobbying, communications and research efforts related to climate policy. But Maloney said they have not complied. "They have provided documents but they're not the documents we requested."

At least one company pushed back on that assertion. Casey Norton, spokesperson for ExxonMobil, said they've been communicating with committee staff "for months and have cooperated with the request for documents."

What Democratic lawmakers want to uncover in this investigation is how the industry spent money on lobbyists and public relations efforts to influence lawmakers and the public by sowing doubts about climate science and the consequences of climate change.

Khanna said the committee has other public records and research that can help lay out the industry's record.

And he adds that he wants to press the executives on public campaigns indicating they are taking steps to use cleaner technologies while they are still pushing for leases to expand drilling.

"What they're doing in expanding oil development is totally inconsistent with what they're claiming they're going to do. And the hearing will expose both. They knew things and they lied about it and they continue to deceive," Khanna said.

Democrats are also likely to press ExxonMobil's Woods about commentsfrom a lobbyist for the company, Keith McCoy, made to undercover activists that Greenpeace released this summer. McCoy talked about efforts to undermine any move to introduce a carbon tax and other regulations. He also boasted about his influence over Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and other lawmakers. Woods condemned McCoy's comments after the video was circulated. Woods also reiterated the company's support for the goals in the Paris climate accord.

ExxonMobil's Norton said the company "has long acknowledge that climate change is real and poses serious risks." He pointed to the company's investments in new technologies. He added, "as the scientific community's understanding of climate change developed, ExxonMobil responded accordingly."

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., objected to the hearing, arguing the panel is ignoring other pressing issues like immigration enforcement at the U.S. Southwest border or the president's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He suggested Cabinet officials should be asked to appear, not oil company CEOs.

In his opening statement shared with NPR, Comer is blunt about why Democrats have called the hearing.

"The purpose of this hearing is clear: to deliver partisan theater for primetime news," Comer will say, according to his prepared remarks.

As for the Greenpeace video, Comer plans to say McCoy's comments were "deceptively edited."

Will Democrats be able to deliver on climate?

The hearing comes as Democratic leaders in Congress are struggling with intraparty divisions about policies to include in a broad domestic spending bill to combat climate change. President Biden and most Democrats pushed what's called the Clean Energy Performance Program to give utility companies incentives for switching to greener technologies and impose fees for those that failed to reduce emission targets.

Opposition from Manchin forced leaders to scuttle that approach, and they are working on a new mix of tax incentives and research and development grants to try to meet the president's target to cut greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2030.

The president, as well as a congressional delegation, are headed to a climate summit in Scotland this weekend, and many hope there will at least be an agreement on a framework on the climate programs to discuss, even if there is no vote on any package.

Maloney indicated that there would be more hearings on the issue, and that she hoped the companies would "work with us and come clean."

"Our committee members will not be satisfied with the executives paying lip service to renewable energy and climate change measures while they're investing in fossil fuels and signing contracts well into the future," she said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Jeffrey Pierre
Jeffrey Pierre is an editor and producer on the Education Desk, where helps the team manage workflows, coordinate member station coverage, social media and the NPR Ed newsletter. Before the Education Desk, he was a producer and director on Morning Edition and the Up First podcast.