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As oil companies make emissions pledges, Congress calls hearing on climate change disinformation

·Senior Editor
·4-min read
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On Tuesday, ExxonMobil announced its “ambition to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for operated assets by 2050,” the latest pledge by an oil company whose primary product is the single biggest driver of climate change.

“We are developing comprehensive roadmaps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our operated assets around the world,” Darren Woods, ExxonMobil's CEO, said in a statement.

Greenhouse gas emissions that result from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and gasoline have caused global temperatures to rise by roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says on its website, unleashing a cascade of extreme weather events, sparking mass wildlife extinction and causing global sea levels to rise.

ExxonMobil is not the only oil company to embrace the idea of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In October, Chevron released a similar statement about its adoption of “a 2050 net zero aspiration” for a portion of its business.

In the statement, CEO and chairman Michael Wirth said Chevron is “investing in lower-carbon businesses” and that he viewed the current moment as “an exciting time to be in the energy industry.”

Last year, Royal Dutch Shell and BP also pledged to become a net-zero-emissions business by 2050.

An ExxonMobil refinery
An ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Democrats in Congress, however, remain highly skeptical of those words, and on Thursday the House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent a letter to members of the boards of directors at the oil companies asking them to testify before Congress about their public commitments to slash emissions.

“Numerous independent reviews have found that these climate pledges are inadequate and will prevent the world from reaching net zero emissions by 2050,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said in their letter to the board members. “These pledges focus on emissions from companies’ own operations, omitting massive downstream emissions that occur when consumers burn the fossil fuels companies produce. Using this narrow metric allows companies to claim their emissions are decreasing even as they extract and sell more oil and gas, increasing their total emissions.”

ExxonMobil's pledge on greenhouse gas emissions does not cover those that are produced by drivers who fill up with the company's gas at service stations.

Perhaps sensing a sea change in how the public views their role in contributing to climate change, the world’s leading oil companies have embarked not only on a new business strategy but also on a public relations campaign loudly announcing it.

With television advertising and the companies' social media channels promoting their net-zero pledges and investments in renewable energy, it can be easy to forget that fossil fuel combustion accounted for 74.1 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Short of dramatically cutting those emissions, average global temperatures will certainly rise above the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold that scientists have warned will result in disastrous results for the planet.

“As worsening natural disasters linked to global warming devastate communities in the United States and globally, one of Congress’s top legislative priorities is combating the increasingly urgent crisis of a changing climate,” Maloney and Khanna wrote in their letter. “To do this, Congress must address pollution caused by the fossil fuel industry and curb business practices that lead to delay and disinformation on these issues.”

In the letter, Maloney said the committee was prepared to subpoena board members if they refused to testify voluntarily.

At an October hearing, Democrats on the Oversight Committee sharply questioned oil company CEOs, while Republicans like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio praised them for not bowing to environmental concerns. “God bless Chevron for saying they’ll increase production,” Jordan quipped at one point. The hearing at which oil company board members will testify has been set for Feb. 8.

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