Big Oil on the Hot Seat

Testifying under oath, oil executives duck, dodge, and deflect

By Jason Mark

October 29, 2021


Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, testifies via video conference on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change on October 28, 2021. | Photo by AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Thursday’s historic congressional hearing on Big Oil’s role in climate change disinformation was a perfect illustration of the hard truth any smoker knows: Bad habits are difficult to break. The oil companies have spent 30 years promulgating propaganda about the causes of climate change, funding think tanks that disseminated climate disinformation, and—still today—lobbying against ambitious climate action. No wonder, then, that the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, and Shell Oil found it impossible to commit their companies to do everything they can to ratchet down carbon pollution. 

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s six-hour hearing to investigate the oil companies’ climate record promised to be a “Big Tobacco moment” for Big Oil. In April 1994, seven CEOs from the top American cigarette companies—appearing in the same room and before the same committee—raised their right hands and, under oath, told Congress that they didn’t believe nicotine was addictive. The claims were soon proven to be lies. Within just a few years, 52 states and US territories won a landmark legal case in which the tobacco companies paid some $250 billion into a settlement fund. 

Going into Thursday’s hearing, House Democrats and environmental advocates were hoping for a similar made-for-history moment. This was a chance to grill the oil executives about when their companies understood the severity of global warming—and what they then chose to do about it. Speaking earlier this week, Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California who has spearheaded the effort to call the oil and gas executives before Congress, said that the hearings would put the fossil fuel executives in a bind. “Do they risk coming close to the line, to committing perjury, and go the way of the tobacco executives?” Khanna told E&E News. “Or do they do a full mea culpa and admit all of the wrongdoing and commit to change?”

By the end of Thursday’s session, the Big Oil executives—ninjas of deflection and delay—managed to do neither. The four CEOs, joined by the president of the American Petroleum Institute and the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, were savvy enough not to commit blatant perjury. Faced with withering questions and criticism from the Democratic majority, the CEOs unfailingly fell back on credible deniability. “I’m not familiar with what you’re referring to,” was a common response, along with, “I don’t have the numbers before me.” Not a single mea culpa was offered, and none of the witnesses took responsibility for a well-documented history of sowing public confusion about climate change. 

But even as the Big Oil executives bobbed and weaved, there was one question they couldn’t duck: their understanding of the causes of climate change. Thursday’s hearing marked the first time ever that the leaders of America’s biggest oil companies acknowledged—under oath—that their products are causing global warming. 

“We know that the combustion of oil and gas releases greenhouse gases, and that greenhouse gases can contribute to the effects of climate change,” said Darren Woods, the chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil. “Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time,” Chevron chair and CEO Michael Wirth told the committee. “We accept the scientific consensus: Climate change is real and the use of fossil fuels contributes to it.” 

Such admissions are very little at a very late hour (even with the climate obviously changing, Exxon’s CEO fell back on the weaselly “can contribute”). Yet Big Oil’s acknowledgment of its role in climate change still represents, as committee chair Carolyn Maloney said at the conclusion of the testimony, a “turning point.” 

The hearing marked the definitive end of the era of climate science denial. There is no longer any shred of cover for any US politician who tries to dismiss the reality of climate change. When even the heads of ExxonMobil and Chevron admit to Congress that burning oil and gas is causing the rise in global temperatures, there’s nowhere for the deniers to hide.

“The era of climate deception and disinformation is now over, but the era of climate change accountability is just beginning.”

But if the era of climate denial is done, the hearing showed that we are still very much in a period of climate action delay. The oil executives’ testimony was significant, in large part, for what they refused to say. When Representative Maloney asked the executives to “take a pledge” to no longer spend money opposing emissions reductions, no one would. And when Representative Khanna followed up asking for a pledge to stop running ads bashing electric vehicles, he received a similar stonewall. 

“I heard all six refuse to acknowledge that climate change is an existential threat,” Kathy Mulvey of the Union of Concerned Scientists told Sierra as the hearings hit the four-hour mark. “All six refused to pledge to stop opposition efforts. And they all stuck with API [the American Petroleum Institute], which is just crazy. Why pay them to lobby if they are not advancing solutions that you say you support?”

Again and again, the oil CEOs and their trade association partners tried to make the case that they are providing an essential good—cheap and abundant energy—without which life as we know it would, supposedly, end. “The food we eat and the clothes we wear are provided by energy,” Chevron’s Wirth argued in his opening statements. “We fuel offices, schools, restaurants, stores, and homes.” Gretchen Watkins, the president of Shell Oil, resorted to some COVID-era concern trolling to say that “petrochemicals are needed for hand sanitizer [and] the fibers in the masks we have all grown accustomed to using.”

While the Democratic lawmakers tried, as best they could, to elicit answers about the oil companies’ business models, public and private statements about climate change, and lobbying agendas, the GOP representatives sought to derail the proceedings. When they weren’t obsequiously apologizing to the oil executives, the Republicans trotted out all the usual boogeymen: the paranoid fantasy of all oil and gas production stopping tomorrow, the Green New Deal, socialism, China’s own mixed environmental record, and Jimmy Carter–era gasoline lines. At times, the proceedings had all the focus of a five-year-old meditating. 

Despite the inherent shortcomings of a video-conference hearing—due to COVID precautions, the Big Oil execs were able to avoid the glare of an in-person hearing like their Big Tobacco predecessors experienced—the Democrats nevertheless managed to put the fossil fuel honchos on the defensive. 

Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland obliterated the executives’ feel-good statements about their commitment to climate action by showing that just .02 percent of ExxonMobil’s lobbying in recent years has been focused on supporting the Paris Agreement. “It’s time we judge companies on their actions, not their rhetoric,” he said. 

Representative Katie Porter, a progressive firebrand from California with a penchant for visual props, used a jar of M&Ms to illustrate how little of its total budget Shell Oil dedicates to renewables—$2 to $3 billion annually, compared with the roughly $20 billion it spends on new oil exploration. “Does this look like a lot to you?” she asked Shell’s Watkins as she gestured to a mostly empty jar of candy. 

Often, the language from the dais was as blistering as a climate-intensified heat dome. “Some of us actually have to live the future that you all are setting on fire for us,” Bronx representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said. Representative Cori Bush from St. Louis laid into the fossil fuel industry’s record of environmental injustice as she asked the executives if most oil refineries were located in white or Black neighborhoods. When the CEOs stumbled to answer, Bush cited NAACP figures showing that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by refinery pollution. 

Some of the most pointed questioning came from Representative Jamie Raskin, the Marylander who earlier this year led the second impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. Raskin, a constitutional law scholar, asked each of the oil executives, “Do you accept that the First Amendment does not protect commercial fraudulent speech?” Every executive dodged the question—no doubt aware that behind Raskin’s question were 20-plus pending lawsuits from states, cities, and counties against the oil companies

When it came time to ask his question of ExxonMobil CEO Woods, Raskin pointed out that, in a case filed by the Massachusetts attorney general alleging that Exxon engaged in deceptive business practices, the company’s own legal brief attempted to make the case that statements about climate change are a form of protected speech. Woods responded: “I am not aware of that, sir. We have hired lawyers to defend our rights.”

If any of the witnesses skirted close to the line of perjury that Representative Khanna referred to, it was Woods. Several Democratic lawmakers brought up a video released this summer by Greenpeace in which then–ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy admitted, “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes.” And several others lawmakers quoted verbatim from internal company reports from the 1970s and 1980s in which Exxon scientists warned executives about the dangers of global warming

Woods did his best to deflect. He said that McCoy has since been fired, and said the senior lobbyist’s “statements didn’t represent our policy and position.” And he stuck close to his talking points when it came to the core question of disinformation, telling the committee at least six times that “as the science has evolved, our position has evolved.” 

The public record contradicts that. As several Democratic representatives pointed out, in the late 1990s then–Exxon CEO Lee Raymond continued to state publicly that the science of climate change was, in his words, “inconclusive.” In 2000, Exxon was still running advertorials in The New York Times arguing that “scientists have been unable to confirm” the connection between burning oil and gas and climate change. In fact, by 1992, the International Panel and Climate Change had already established that human activities were changing the atmosphere.

Woods will very likely have a chance to clarify his remarks—should he wish. At the close of Thursday’s hearing, Representative Maloney made clear that the committee’s work will continue. She said that the fossil fuel companies and trade associations have so far refused to supply the internal documents the committee has asked for, and said that in the coming weeks she will be issuing subpoenas for further information. “I see no choice but to continue our committee’s investigation until we see the truth,” she said. 

The era of climate deception and disinformation is now over, but the era of climate change accountability is just beginning.