Oil executives slated to testify on climate disinformation

Hearing marks start of an investigation that has drawn comparisons to 1990s probes into the tobacco industry

Tobacco company executives testified at a House Commerce Committee hearing in January 1998. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Tobacco company executives testified at a House Commerce Committee hearing in January 1998. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 28, 2021 at 6:00am

The chief executives of Exxon Mobil Corp. and other big oil companies are scheduled to testify Thursday morning at a House Oversight subcommittee hearing on allegations that they knew about, but hid, their products' ties to climate change for decades.

The hearing marks an official public start to the investigation, which has drawn comparisons to 1990s oversight probes into the tobacco industry, when the public learned cigarette manufacturers had been aware of the health dangers of smoking and the addictive properties of nicotine, yet obscured those facts.

Darren Woods, the Exxon Mobil CEO; David Lawler, the president and chairman of BP PLC's American arm; Michael Wirth, the CEO of Chevron Corp.; and Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil Co., are all scheduled to appear. Also scheduled are Mike Sommers, the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the top lobby for the oil and gas industry in Washington, and Suzanne Clark, the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Speaking on a call with progressive activists Monday night, subcommittee Chairman Ro Khanna,  D-Calif., said the investigation will go on for a year and that Thursday’s hearing will be the first step.

“They lied to the general public. They had a strategy to shape uncertainty and doubt in science that they knew was true,” Khanna said. 

Oil supermajors like Exxon Mobil have denied lying about their knowledge of the environmental perils of their products and maintain their understanding of climate change has largely tracked with mainstream climate science.

A seminal report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in August after collaboration from hundreds of leading scientists, found climate change is an immediate threat.

"Nobody is safe. And it is getting worse faster,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme.

In-person appearance

Rep. James R. Comer, R-Ky., the ranking member of the full committee, has criticized the hearing as a publicity stunt and questioned why Khanna requested it be held in person when other witnesses have appeared remotely, due to COVID-19 safety restrictions.

“The demand for these witnesses to appear in-person reveals the real motivations of this investigation: to turn it into a spectacle,” Comer said in an Oct. 13 letter.

The hearing also comes as President Joe Biden is preparing for a trip to Italy, where he will meet with leaders of the Group of 20 nations, and then to Scotland for an international climate summit.

While executives of oil companies have appeared before Congress before, experts said this hearing will be the first time fossil fuel companies will be forced to answer questions about climate disinformation and obstruction.

“It had all the ingredients to be a big moment,” Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview. “There are bound to be some new questions that get surfaced that demand additional investigation.”

While some witnesses may appear remotely, the Internet and social media may allow for images of the hearing to gain widespread public attention, as did the photos of the tobacco executives raising their hands before congressional hearings in the 1990s.

“We don't have them all standing up in a row with their right hands in the air. By the same token we didn't have social media before and the potential for a particular clip to go viral,” Mulvey said.

Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, said the inclusion of API as a subject of the inquiry is noteworthy, describing the trade group as a conduit through which member companies have viewed climate policies.

Documents the CIEL published in 2016 indicate API was aware of climate change and its potential risks in the 1960s.

“API was often the mechanism, the instrumentality through which the companies coordinated their conduct with respect to the climate crisis,” Muffett said. “From a legal perspective, that recognition of API’s role and bringing API before Congress is notable.”

He and other environmental experts who have studied climate disinformation for years are not expecting direct answers to lawmakers’ questions about climate information obstruction.

“You also have to anticipate that these are sophisticated executives who will have been prepped very carefully on how to avoid meaningful responses to questions,” Muffett said, adding that the ability of the committee to demand records through subpoenas could bring about more fruitful responses.

“I think that's where a lot of the real significant informational value of this hearing will come,” he said.

Bob Brulle, a visiting professor of environment and society at Brown University, said in an interview he helped Khanna’s staff prepare for the hearing and answered their questions.

“These big oil companies will say climate change is real and we need to deal with it,” Brulle said. “But will they say “And it’s caused by our products, and it’s human-made?’ I don’t know.”

As Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., seems to have stymied a clean electricity standard in the budget reconciliation package that would penalize electric utilities that do not swiftly decarbonize their fuel sources — and as a methane fee in the package appears to be wobbling — Brulle said investigating large fossil energy firms is one way congressional Democrats can display their environmental plaudits.

“Democrats, I think, kind of have their credibility” on climate at stake, he said. If they can’t keep the key climate provisions in the budget reconciliation bill, he added, holding “these big corporations accountable” may help.