29 Oct 2021

Climate change: Big Oil executives testify before US Congress

1:12 pm on 29 October 2021

Executives from some of the world's biggest oil companies denied in US congressional testimony that they continue to misinform the public about the role of fossil fuels in climate change and resisted calls to ask lobbying groups they fund to stop obstructing climate-friendly policies.

Oil pumpjacks operate at dusk Willow Springs Park in Long Beach, California on April 21, 2020.

Oil pumpjacks in Long Beach, California. Photo: AFP

It was the first time executives of the top oil majors - ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, BP America and Chevron - and the heads of the American Petroleum Institute (API) and Chamber of Commerce answered questions about climate change in Congress under oath.

Democratic Representative Ro Khanna said at the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on Thursday that oil companies have started to improve their talking points around climate change.

But Khanna said their support of lobbying groups that either deny climate science or work to kill major climate policies contradicts their statements.

"I don't believe that you purposely want to be out there spreading climate misinformation but you're out there funding these groups," Khanna said.

Appearing before the panel were CEOs Darren Woods of ExxonMobil, Gretchen Watkins of Shell Oil, David Lawler of BP America and Mike Wirth of Chevron. They all testified virtually.

Khanna asked them if any would commit to an independent audit to verify that none of their funds were going to groups that deny climate science, or whether they would commit to pulling their memberships from API even if the oil lobby group continues to lobby against policies such as electric vehicle credits and methane fees. None of the executives said yes.

Role in climate change

Committee Democrats said the hearing opens a year of investigations into whether Big Oil has deceived Americans about its role in climate change.

The hearing came as President Joe Biden heads to Scotland for UN climate talks and as Congress haggles over climate provisions in major social spending and infrastructure legislation.

Environmental groups and their congressional allies hope the probe evokes the Big Tobacco hearings of the 1990s when tobacco industry executives were grilled about their knowledge of the addictive properties of their products, which began a shift in public opinion about that industry.

Democrats also said young people will have to deal with the effects of climate change, driven by emissions from fossil fuels.

"One thing that often gets lost in these conversations is some of us have to actually live in the future that you all are setting on fire for us," Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 32, told the executives, all older than 50.

The United Nations this summer released a report saying that unless immediate, rapid and large-scale action is taken to reduce emissions, the average global temperature is likely to reach or cross the 1.5C warming threshold within 20 years.

Oil executives and trade group officials at the hearing used the platform to try to distance themselves from previous efforts to dismiss climate science, saying their policies evolved as the science became more clear.

Exxon's Woods said his company "responded accordingly" when the "scientific community's understanding of climate change developed" and maintained that he believes oil and gas will still be needed to meet growing global energy demand.

Woods and Chevron's Wirth played up oil and gas as essential for operation of hospitals, schools and offices.

BP America's Lawler and Shell's Watkins talked about their recognition that climate change was a problem in the 1990s and about their current efforts to adapt their business models to add more renewable energy and lower emissions.

'Partisan theatre

Representative James Comer, the panel's top Republican, did not mention climate change in his opening remarks and said the panel should be addressing inflation and high energy prices he linked to Biden administration policies.

"The purpose of this hearing is clear: to deliver partisan theatre for prime-time news," Comer said.

The lone Republican witness, Neal Crabtree, a welder who lost his job after Biden canceled the Keystone XL oil pipeline, said his main crisis was not climate change but paying for his mortgage and food for his family.

The Democratic-led committee criticized the companies' scant support for the Paris climate agreement. It released an analysis that found from 2015, when the pact was agreed, to 2021, Exxon reported in its lobbying disclosures only one instance of lobbying on the Paris Agreement, and none on any of the 28 bills related to the pact.

"That means that only 0.06 percent of Exxon's 1543 total instances of legislative lobbying since 2015 has been devoted to the Paris Agreement or related legislation," the analysis said.

Woods emphasized Exxon's investments in carbon capture, a technology to capture emissions for burial underground or to pump them into aging oilfields to squeeze out more crude.

The energy executives also said that more time is needed for a transition to cleaner energy.

- Reuters