It’s the first time since BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill more than a decade ago that top industry executives have appeared together before lawmakers in the nation’s capital. Campaigners hope they can tease out statements that will help turn public opinion and aid lawsuits against fossil fuels as happened with Big Tobacco in the 1990s.
“They are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were,” U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat who chairs the committee, said after a particularly tense exchange with Exxon Chief Executive Officer Darren Woods.
The probe comes as President Joe Biden struggles to keep key climate policies in his spending bill, which is crucial to implementing the infrastructure goals that were a cornerstone of his campaign. Moderate Democrats and Republicans are blocking large portions of Biden’s climate efforts amid deep divisions within his own party ahead of a key climate summit in Glasgow begins next week.
As such, Democrats are keen to use the hearing to ramp up public pressure on the fossil-fuel industry in the hopes of getting stronger climate provisions passed.
Maloney presented Exxon’s Woods with a series of documents and statements from Exxon’s own scientists that fossil fuels were the main man-made cause of climate change as far back as 1978 and contrasted them with the company’s public statements.
She particularly emphasized former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond’s skeptical comments about the state of climate science in the 1990s.
“No I do not agree that there was an inconsistency,” Woods said. Exxon’s scientific understanding was “entirely consistent” with the wider scientific community and has evolved over time, he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to judge something 25 years ago with what we’ve learned since then.”
But that did not satisfy Maloney, who played a clip of former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy caught on camera by Greenpeace saying the company worked with “shadow groups” to combat climate science.
Shell’s Watkins told lawmakers that as early as 1991 the corporation was raising concerns about climate change and created an educational film on the topic for schools and universities.
“Shell has long advocated for governmental policies that will reduce fossil fuel demand, stimulate innovation in clean energy technologies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and ensure access to reliable and affordable energy,” Watkins said in written testimony.
Last month, lawmakers requested documents and internal communications related to climate disinformation but “to date all the fossil fuel entities have failed to adequately comply with the Committee’s request,” the committee said on its website.
–With assistance from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.