Oil Execs Spout Disinformation at House Climate Disinformation Hearing

December 7, 2021 | 12:34 pm
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

Earlier this fall, the House Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing about the oil industry’s decades-long climate disinformation campaign, inviting the heads of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell—along with their counterparts at the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the US oil industry’s largest trade association—to testify under oath.

What came out of their mouths? A gusher of disinformation.

It is well documented by journalists, legislators, academics and public interest groups such as my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), that the oil industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 20 years on political campaigns, super PACs, lobbying, advertising, bogus scientific studies, and a network of libertarian think tanks and advocacy groups to manufacture doubt about climate science and prevent government action.

Nevertheless, the executives strenuously denied spreading climate science denial at the October 28 hearing. At the same time, they all flatly refused to: stop funding groups that are promoting climate disinformation, commit to an independent audit to verify that they are not funding climate science denial, or stop spending money to oppose efforts to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change.

Given the unprecedented nature of the hearing, it attracted its share of news media attention, but there was no way for reporters on a tight deadline to capture all of the hot air released that day. So I sat down, caffeinated up, and forced myself to watch every minute of it again to drill below the surface.

What did I find? Throughout the six-hour marathon, the executives bobbed and weaved, refusing to directly answer simple yes or no questions, and recited shopworn talking points replete with half-truths, falsehoods and fabrications. Below are five of their biggest whoppers.

ExxonMobil does finance climate science denial

ExxonMobil’s Darren Woods was the first CEO to testify. His company has spent at least $39 million since 1998 on think tanks and advocacy groups to disparage climate science, more than any other funder besides Charles and the late David Koch, owners of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries.

Woods’s answers to committee members’ questions were classic examples of plausible deniability, exploiting the fact that his company’s disinformation campaign was launched long before he became CEO. That allowed him to not only claim that he did not personally approve such a campaign, but also that the company does not tell its grantees to oppose its professed climate policy positions.  

Early in the hearing, committee Ranking Member James Comer (R-Ky.) asked all of the oil company executives how long they have been running their companies and if any of them had authorized a climate disinformation campaign. Like the rest of the execs, Woods—who replaced Rex Tillerson as CEO in 2017—said he did not sign off on such a campaign.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) followed up with Woods about that funding. “Mr. Woods, is it your testimony that Exxon has not at any point funded any think tank, advocacy organization or other ‘shadow groups’ against climate change efforts,” she asked. “Yes or no?”

“The position we take is transparent,” he responded, “and we publish the groups we support on our website.”

Yes, ExxonMobil has been publishing a list of its annual grants for years, and before that, it filed federal tax forms for its foundation that required it to list its grantees. Under Woods’ watch, from 2017 through 2020, the company donated $3.79 million to 13 organizations that either deny climate science, lobby against climate solutions, or both, according to company records.

Pressley continued: “Mr. Woods, do you commit right here to stop funding organizations that reject the science of climate change, yes or no?”

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods: We do not support denial.

“We do not support climate denial,” he replied. “We do not ask people to lobby for anything different than our publicly supported positions.”

On the contrary, ExxonMobil does support climate science denial. The company may not have formally asked its grantees to take diametrically opposite positions, but they have and still do, and ExxonMobil has continued to finance a number of them.

As I reported in a recent column, just last year ExxonMobil donated $100,000 to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which it has funded to the tune of $4.86 million since 1998. The views expressed by AEI economist Benjamin Zycher are 180 degrees from ExxonMobil’s alleged policy positions. He rejects the scientific consensus about the causes of global warming, insists that a carbon tax would be “ineffective,” and has called the Paris climate agreement an “absurdity.” And Zycher is hardly alone. AEI is just one of dozens of ExxonMobil grantees that have contradicted the company’s public stances on climate over the past two decades, giving climate science deniers in Congress—whose political campaigns are generously funded by ExxonMobil and other oil companies—intellectual cover to ignore the climate crisis.

Oil companies don’t support a carbon tax

During his opening statement, Woods repeated his company’s mantra about supporting a carbon tax. “We have advocated for an economywide revenue neutral price on carbon for more than a decade…,” he said.

As I have pointed out previously, ExxonMobil’s ongoing funding of climate science denier legislators and groups demonstrates that its support for a carbon tax has always been a sham. This became more apparent than ever when then-ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy conceded in a secretly recorded video in May that the company voiced support for such a tax only because it assumed it would never happen.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) pressed Woods about his company’s professed preference for a carbon tax, which the company first announced in 2009 to derail a cap-and-trade bill then moving through Congress. Referencing the fact that ExxonMobil’s website states that the company’s lobbying efforts are aligned with its publicly available positions “without exception,” Davis schooled Woods about just how seldom the company’s lobbyists broached the topic of carbon pricing on Capitol Hill since 2011. Only 12 of 344 ExxonMobil lobbyist reports involving tax legislation or policy, he said, cited carbon fee-related bills. 

Rep. Danny Davis: Oil execs fake support for a carbon tax.

“Mr. Woods, your company’s lack of action on an issue it says it supports sends a rather interesting signal,” Davis concluded. “And this goes for all the organizations represented here today. Over the last decade, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, API and their outside lobbyists filed nearly 6,000 lobbying reports. The [Oversight] committee identified only 34 times that these companies and API reported lobbying on any of the bills that address carbon pricing. Meanwhile, they lobbied 77 times just on President Trump’s tax cuts.”

My own, more cursory investigation of ExxonMobil’s lobbying reports found that its inhouse lobbyists have not mentioned the topic of carbon pricing at all on Capitol Hill since 2018.

Human activity caused the climate crisis

Did the oil execs hire the same crisis management consultant? It certainly seemed that way, given they all used virtually the same wording to downplay the central role human activity—mainly burning fossil fuels—has played in triggering climate change, implying there are other, more significant causes.

“At Chevron, we’ve been very clear about where we stand,” Chevron CEO Michael Wirth told the committee. “We accept the scientific consensus. Climate change is real. And the use of fossil fuels contributes to it.”

API CEO Mike Sommers also acknowledged that “climate change is real,” but would not attribute it directly to fossil fuels. “Industrial activity,” he said, “contributes to it.”

A few minutes later, Suzanne Clark, the US Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO, chimed in. “The Chamber’s position is clear,” she said. “The climate is changing and humans are contributing to these changes.”

ExxonMobil CEO Woods’ statement was even more contorted. “… We know the combustion of oil and gas releases greenhouse gases,” he said, “and that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that increased greenhouse gases can contribute to the effects of climate change.”

Chevron CEO Mike Wirth: Oil “contributes” to climate change.

Perhaps Wirth, Sommers, Clark and Woods were all on vacation in August. That’s when the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its Sixth Assessment Report, in which, for the first time, the IPCC concluded that human activities are unequivocally responsible for the climate crisis. Of those activities, burning fossil fuels is the primary culprit, not some sort of minor contributor.

The dramatic increase in average global temperature is “predominantly determined by CO2,” the IPPC report stated, and “[f]ossil fuel combustion for energy, industry and land transportation are the largest contributing sectors [to carbon dioxide emissions] on a 100-year time scale.” Between 2010 and 2019 alone, the report found that “average annual anthropogenic [human-caused] CO2 emissions reached the highest levels in human history,” and the combustion of fossil fuels produced 72 to 100 percent of them. 

The four oil companies represented at the hearing have played an outsized role. A 2019 analysis by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute identified 20 state- and investor-owned fossil fuel companies that accounted for 35 percent of worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1965 and 2017. Of the eight investor-owned corporations on the list, Chevron was the biggest emitter, followed closely by ExxonMobil, BP and Shell. Together they were responsible for more than 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965.

ExxonMobil has routinely contradicted climate science

In his written testimony and repeatedly throughout the hearing, ExxonMobil CEO Woods insisted that his company’s public statements about climate change have always been “consistent with the views of the broader, mainstream scientific community.”

According to two analyses of the company’s climate change communications by Harvard University professor Naomi Oreskes and research fellow Geoffrey Supran, however, Exxon, Mobil and the merged corporation, ExxonMobil, issued at least 45 newspaper advertisements and other public statements between 1996 and 2017 that openly contradicted mainstream climate science.

Regardless, Woods stuck to his talking point. For example, Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked Woods about a public statement then-Exxon CEO Lee Raymond made in 1996 in which he said, “Currently the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.” She wanted to know if that statement was consistent with the views of Exxon’s own scientists, who had warned top company officials as early as 1977 about the threat burning fossil fuels posed to the climate.

“Our understanding of the science,” Woods responded, “has been aligned with the consensus of the scientific community as far back as 20 years ago when you referenced our chairman at that time’s comments….”

In fact, the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report, published in 1995—a year before Raymond made that statement—concluded that global temperatures were rising and carbon emissions from human activity were most certainly the main cause.

Oil companies spend chump change on climate solutions

Oil companies like to crow about how much money they are spending to solve the climate crisis.

In ExxonMobil CEO Woods’ written testimony, he asserted that “ExxonMobil already has invested significantly in the next generation of lower-emission fuels and fuel technologies…,” and the company’s website boasts that it has spent more than $10 billion on researching, developing and deploying lower-emissions energy solutions since 2000.

That seems like a lot of money, but Kathy Mulvey, director of the UCS climate accountability campaign, put that $10 billion in context in a recent column. “That figure may sound impressive,” she explained, “until you compare it with the more than $500 billion the company spent on oil and gas exploration and infrastructure over the same period—50 times as much.”

In perhaps the most entertaining interrogation of the day, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) nailed Shell President Gretchen Watkins on the same contradiction. Holding up a glass jar of M&Ms, each representing about $50 million in spending, Porter pointed out that Shell’s 2020 annual report stated that the company planned to spend between $16 billion and $17 billion in 2021 on oil, gas and chemical operations and another $3 billion on marketing. She then asked Watkins how much the company planned to spend on renewable energy.

“This year we will be spending between two and three billion,” Watkins replied.

“Two to three billion on renewables and energy solutions,” said Porter. “In your testimony, you said, quote, ‘Meeting the demand for reliable energy while simultaneously addressing climate change is a huge undertaking and one of the defining challenges of our time.’ Shell has made these promises before. Shell pledged to spend six billion between 2017 and 2020 on renewable energy. How much of that did Shell actually spend? The answer is about half.

Rep. Katie Porter: Shell spends bubkes on renewable energy.

“Ms. Watkins, does this look like a huge undertaking to you?” Porter asked as she held up the glass jar with a few M&Ms at the bottom.

“Ms. Watkins, to me this does not look like an adequate response to one of the defining challenges of our time,” Porter continued. “This is greenwashing. Shell is trying to fool people into thinking that it is addressing the climate crisis when what it is actually doing is to continue to put money into fossil fuels.”

Roll out the subpoenas

Oversight Committee Chair Maloney was clearly not satisfied with the responses the committee got over the course of the day.

“Today’s witnesses refused to take responsibility for Big Oil’s decades-long disinformation campaign and even after agreeing that we are, in fact, in quote code red unquote crisis, they refused to stop funding groups like the American Petroleum Institute that are still blocking reforms like expanding the use of electric vehicles,” she said during her closing remarks. “So I see no choice but to continue our committee’s investigation until we see the truth.”

The committee had asked the oil companies and trade groups to provide documents detailing their payments to think tanks, public relations firms and others, as well as documents pertaining to internal deliberations over corporate climate policy strategies. Instead, Maloney said, the committee received photocopies of website pages, press clippings, annual reports and other publicly available materials.

Maloney announced that the committee would subpoena the oil companies and trade groups for key documents. “I have tried very hard to obtain this information voluntarily,” she explained. “But the oil companies employed the same tactics they used for decades on climate policy—delay and obstruction. Well that ends today…. We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas we will.” On November 2, she issued the subpoenas, giving the companies and trade associations until November 16 to respond.

According to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chair of the Oversight Committee’s environment subcommittee, the climate disinformation investigation could take another six months and the committee may ask the CEOs to testify again. “This hearing is just the start of our investigation,” he said. “These companies must be held accountable.”