The chief executives of some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies are appearing before US Congress to answer questions on accusations that Big Oil has engaged in a decades-long campaign to spread disinformation on the science that their products are driving global heating, and stymie action to tackle the climate crisis.
The heads of ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron and Shell appeared on Thursday morning along with the president of the industry’s lobbying outfit, American Petroleum Institute, and the head of the US Chamber of Commerce.
It is the first time that oil company executives will be quizzed under oath. None of the executives traveled to Washington DC for the hearing.
The hearing, led by Democrat, Rep Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep Ro Khanna, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, comes days before the global climate summit, Cop26, gets underway in Glasgow.
In opening remarks, Congresswoman Maloney called it a “historic hearing”.
“For the first time, top fossil fuel executives are testifying together before Congress, under oath, about the industry’s role in causing climate change—and their efforts to cover it up,” she said.
“For far too long, Big Oil has escaped accountability for its central role in bringing our planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe. That ends today.”
Congressman Khanna asked the oil executives to “spare us the spin” and appealed to them to “commit to changing course that will avert a climate catastrophe”.
The lawmakers say that the fossil fuel industry has had scientific evidence about the dangers of climate change since the late Seventies and yet “for decades, the industry spread denial and doubt about the harm of its products” – even as Americans faced worsening impacts from heatwaves, drought, wildfires and more extreme storms.
The hearing comes months after an undercover investigation by Greenpeace where a senior ExxonMobil lobbyist was caught on tape explaining the company’s tactics to undermine and obstruct legislation to address the climate crisis.
The committee’s chairs compared the tactics of the oil industry to those used by tobacco companies in the late 20th century who lied about cigarettes causing cancer to resist regulation.
Mr Khanna noted how Big Tobacco had lied under oath about the addictiveness of nicotine and urged the oil executives to tell the truth.
Research published last week by Cornell University noted that 99.9 per cent of studies now say the climate crisis is human-driven, on a par with scientific certainty in evolution.
The Democrats had requested that the oil firms produce documents and communications ahead of the hearing on their organizations’ role in “misleading the public to prevent action on the climate crisis”.
A press release ahead of Thursday’s hearing noted that “all the fossil fuel entities” have failed to adequately comply with the Committee’s request.
Since the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global emissions was signed, the five largest publicly-traded oil and gas majors – ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total – have invested more than $1billion of shareholder funds on misleading climate-related branding and lobbying, according to InfluenceMap.
The fossil fuel industry invests around just 1 per cent of total capital in renewable energy, according to the International Energy Agency.
In June, Greenpeace aired Zoom calls between Keith McCoy, a senior director in Exxon’s DC government affairs team, and an undercover reporter from the environmental group.
On tape, Mr McCoy described President Biden’s plans to slash greenhouse gas emissions as “insane” and admitted that the company had aggressively fought early climate science through “shadow groups” to protect its business.
“Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes…Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true,” he said.
Greenpeace said that no serving Exxon executive has ever before admitted that the company fought climate science to protect its financial interests.
Mr McCoy also suggested that Exxon’s public pledge in support of a carbon tax to reduce emissions is just an “advocacy tool” and “great talking point” but won’t happen.
This article is being updated