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House committee to subpoena oil companies over climate misinformation

By Hannah Zhihan Jiang, Medill News Service
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House committee to subpoena oil companies over climate misinformation
Chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., opens with remarks before a hearing on "Fueling the Climate Crisis: Exposing Big Oils Disinformation Campaign to Prevent Climate Action" at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI  | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- The House Oversight and Reform Committee will issue subpoenas to ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute to obtain key internal documents that the companies have not provided, Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney announced Thursday.

In her closing remarks at Thursday's hearing to interrogate big oil companies on their alleged climate disinformation campaign, she said she has tried repeatedly to get the documents, but the committee received only public documents available on the companies' websites.

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"I have tried very hard to obtain this information voluntarily. But the oil companies have employed the same tactics they've used for decades on climate policy: delay and obstruction. Well, that ends today," Maloney said.

In a letter to the companies sent before the hearing, Maloney and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., head of the committee's environment subcommittee, accused them and allies of spending $1 billion between 2015 and 2018 to cast doubt on the climate dangers of fossil fuels to avert serious environmental actions.

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"We are deeply concerned that the fossil fuel industry has reaped massive profits for decades while contributing to climate change that is devastating American communities, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and ravaging the natural world," they wrote.

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In order to carry out the investigation on the oil companies, she said at the hearing, the committee needs to see internal funding information that contains payments to shadow groups and advertisements on social media as well as the internal communication documents from senior executives about their companies' role on climate change.

Thursday's hearing was the first time that ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, BP America CEO David Lawler, Chevron CEO Michael Wirth and Shell President Gretchen Watkins appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to respond to accusations that they spread disinformation minimizing fossil fuels' role in climate change.

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They also declined to defund the American Petroleum Institute that allegedly lobbied against electric vehicles and methane regulations.

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, BP America CEO David Lawler, Chevron CEO Michael Wirth and Shell President Gretchen Watkins for the first time appeared in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to respond to accusations that they spread disinformation minimizing fossil fuels' role in climate change.

They testified that they have long recognized fossil fuels' damage to the environment but denied spreading disinformation about climate change.

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They also declined to defund the American Petroleum Institute, which is accused of lobbying against electric vehicles and methane regulations.

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Khanna asked if the companies would commit to have an independent audit to verify their funding has not gone toward spreading climate denial and if they would stop funding API, which has been accused of lobbying against environmental measures.

"You can tell them to knock it off for the sake of the planet. You could end that lobbying. Would any of you take that opportunity to look at API and say, 'Stop it?'" Khanna asked.

All four executives responded with silence.

Different from the 1994 congressional hearing at which tobacco company officials denied the harm of cigarettes, the oil executives acknowledged that burning fossil fuel is a major cause of global warming and said they are committed to addressing the challenges.

"We accept the scientific consensus that climate change is real and use of fossil fuel leads to it," Wirth said.

Lawler said BP plans to reduce its oil and gas production by 40% by the end of the decade, and it will dedicate up to $4 billion per year by 2025 and $5 billion per year by 2030.

Woods and Wirth voiced strong opposition to the allegations that they have spread disinformation regarding climate change, though multiple reports suggested the companies had invested in advertisements that spread climate denial for 40 years after they first recognized the environmental consequence of fossil fuels in 1970s.

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"Any suggestions that Chevron has engaged in an effort to spread disinformation and mislead the public on this complex issue is simply wrong," Wirth said.

Maloney, D-N.Y., said in her opening statement that she hopes the witnesses will "finally own up to the industry's central role in this crisis and become the part of the change we need."

The hearing also included testimony from API President Mike Sommers and Neal Crabtree from the Keystone XL Pipeline. Both said that cheap access to energy is crucial to America's job market and low costs throughout supply chain.

Woods argued that oil and gas will continue be necessary for society, as there is no alternative energy source to replace it.

The companies came under scrutiny after the release of an undercover interview by Greenpeace UK in June with Exxon Senior Director Keith McCoy, who said the company has been working to bring down President Joe Biden's climate plan and holding weekly calls with conservative-leaning Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

"Carbon tax is not going to happen," McCoy said. "But it gives us a talking point that we can say, well what is ExxonMobil for? Well, we're for a carbon tax."

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Thursday's hearing coincided with Biden's announcement of a Democratic compromise for his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act, which contains significant funding for climate change measures.

Manchin, a key vote in whether the bill will pass, has said that he wouldn't support a bill that penalizes the coal and natural gas industry.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in August that said a Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial levels, will be exceeded before the end of the century unless there's rapid and deep reductions in emissions.

The big oil companies first became aware of fossil fuels' contribution to global warming in the 1970s, and some companies like Exxon were leading climate research. By the 1990s, they curtailed the research and started denying environmental consequences brought by their products, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists cited by the oversight committee.

More recently, the companies supported Biden's goal of net zero emissions by 2050, but their social media messaging suggests otherwise, according to InfluenceMap, a think tank that researches the climate crisis.

More than 25,000 ads from oil and gas companies were distributed in 2020 and have been seen more than 431 million times, emphasizing the role of fossil fuels in everyday life and promoting natural gas as a "green alternative," InfluenceMap said.

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Around the time the Senate passed a resolution in August to craft the $3.5 trillion social spending bill that now stands at $1.75 trillion, InfluenceMap said, the American Petroleum Institute raised social ad spending intended to block climate initiatives to more than $10,000 a day.

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