The US’s House Oversight Committee will host four oil leaders and two trade groups that have spread misinformation to account for their role in confusing the public on climate change. The hearing has been likened to a 1994 appearance by Big Tobacco CEOs before Congress. But in some ways, the hearing on Thursday will be more consequential.
Fossil fuels have played a key role in driving the economy — and pushing the planet to the brink of destruction. Those twin achievements have been tied to Big Oil’s decades of deception; scientists inside the companies like Exxon and Shell knew that burning fossil fuels worsened the climate crisis. But rather than change course, oil companies spent millions to sow doubt about if their product caused the climate crisis, allowing them to sink their tentacles further into the global economy. The hearing will be a chance for Congress to probe that history, and how companies have turned to greenwashing more recently in an effort to stay essential.
What’s the Point of the Big Oil Hearing?
Journalists and academics have spent the past few years dismantling Big Oil’s climate misinformation campaign. A landmark investigation by Inside Climate News in 2015 exposed Exxon’s decades of research into climate change that the company then covered up. Researchers at Harvard and elsewhere have probed the depths of Big Oil’s ad campaigns to confuse the public, notably Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in a seminal book, Merchants of Doubt.
But getting Congress in on the act ratchets up the pressure on these firms. Unlike academics and journalists, Congress has the power to subpoena documents and bring in witnesses. And a growing percentage of the U.S. public wants to see the industry held to account.
“It’s the first time that the oil company CEOs have ever testified before a congressional committee,” Richard Wiles, the executive director of the Centre for Climate Integrity, said. “They defied many other committees, but I think it was the threat of the subpoenas and the general atmosphere of climate legislation moving forward and the COP [Conference of the Parties, or UN climate talks] around the corner that has led them to comply for the first time ever.”
OK, So Who’s Showing Up?
All the oil companies you love to hate will be there. Exxon, Chevron, and BP’s U.S. division are sending their CEOs while Shell is sending their U.S. president. In addition, the presidents of the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will also be present. On the other side of the dais will sit at least 30 Democratic members of Congress who want a shot at questioning the leaders as well as Republican members of the House Oversight Committee Subcommittee on the Environment. (Yes, it’s a mouthful.)
The hearing will be virtual, similar to the Big Tech hearings held over the past year, which means this won’t quite have the visual oomph of the Big Tobacco hearings.
Republicans are largely expected to be friendly with the industry. In a letter sent earlier this month to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the head of the committee, Reps. James Comer and Jody Hice, said that Democrats demand CEOs to appear in person “reveals the real motivations of this investigation: to turn it into a spectacle.”
Oil Companies Make Sense, but Why the Trade Groups?
While Exxon, Shell, BP, and Chevron are household names, API and the Chamber might be less familiar. They play an important role, though, in shaping public opinion about the fossil fuel industry. A report released just this summer by Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab chronicled the myriad ways the Chamber of Commerce has sowed public doubt and blocked climate action. The group tallies not just oil companies on its membership rolls; it claims to represent 3 million businesses across the U.S. Unravelling its relationship with the oil industry is key to figuring out just where corporate America stands on climate change.
API is the oil industry’s main trade group. They’ve often stood in the way of climate action. According to Benjamin Franta, a history PhD candidate at Stanford who has explored the climate misinformation ecosystem, the group also had “a secret task force, including scientists from nearly every major oil company, to monitor climate change research.”
Wiles called them the “whipping boys for the companies, as the sort of front group, if you will, that goes out and does the dirty work so the companies can say that they’re clean.”
What Can We Expect Congress to Ask?
It’s likely representatives will try to get the companies and trade groups to talk about the decades of climate denial and misinformation. Getting them on the record could provide evidence for use in court cases being brought by cities and states as well as international suits.
Oil companies have pivoted in recent years from all-out questioning climate science to saying that they can be part of the solution. They’ve issued claims about carbon-neutral gas, used influencers to peddle their essentialness, and leaned into new jargon that makes oil sound less damaging to the climate than it is. Members of the committee will likely to try to pin the CEOs down on their claims. That could pay dividends in court and for a number of complaints around false advertising and greenwashing. It could also bolster frontline communities fighting new fossil fuel projects.
The industry has also gummed up the political process for years. The most egregious recent example is a now-former Exxon lobbyist being caught on tape talking about how the company supports a carbon tax because it’s a good “talking point” that it knows will never pass and calling Sen. Joe Manchin a “kingmaker.” Between the polluted discourse and polluted political system, there’s a lot of threads Congress could tie together.
The Hearing Is Just the Start of an Investigation
Rep. Ro Khanna, the chair of the subcommittee convening the hearing, told E&E News that “this hearing is the start of the investigation, not the end, not the culmination, just like the tobacco hearings.” Congress has already put in document requests, and we can expect more after the CEOs and trade group leaders testify.
“The Oversight Committee is the most powerful investigative committee in the House, arguably in the Congress, and they have broad subpoena power to request documents,” Wiles said. “If they take it seriously and use that power, I think they could go a long way to a better understanding of the extent and the details of the ongoing and past disinformation campaigns run by these industries that have been the most consequential disinformation campaigns in history.”