For the first time, the executives of major fossil fuel companies and industry groups will testify in front of Congress on Thursday about disinformation on the climate crisis and the role their organizations have played in it.
Heads from ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron Corp., Shell Oil Co., the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce will sit in front of the House Oversight Committee on Thursday. Committee members are expected to press the executives about their knowledge of the climate crisis, the role fossil fuels have played in it and their desire to put profits over a climate solution.
The hearing comes after reports the fossil fuel industry has participated in campaigns aimed at creating confusion about the cause of the climate crisis or sowing skepticism in the science. An undercover video released this summer appeared to show an ExxonMobil lobbyist admitting the company fought climate policy and the science behind it.
“For far too long, Big Oil has escaped accountability for its central role in bringing our planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe,” House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, said in a statement to CNN. “That ends today.”
Fossil fuel companies and trade groups are expected to use their time to focus on their commitment to solving the climate crisis, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and to emphasize the steps they are taking to lower emissions.
Suzanne Clark, the president and CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce, “is looking forward to sharing with the committee the work the chamber has done to forge climate solutions, including many important provisions that will drive the innovation needed to meet ambitious climate goals,” US Chamber of Commerce spokesman Matt Letourneau told CNN, adding that climate solutions need to be “durable and bipartisan.”
American Petroleum Institute spokesperson Bethany Aronhalt Williams said the trade group planned to discuss “advancing our priorities of pricing carbon, regulating methane and reliably producing American energy.”
Democratic lawmakers are hoping this will be fossil fuel companies’ “Big Tobacco” moment, a nod to the famous 1994 hearings when Big Tobacco CEOs insisted that cigarettes were not addictive. And like the tobacco hearings of the ’90s, this hearing won’t be the end of Congress’ investigation into fossil fuel misinformation.
“I think this is the modern-day equivalent of the tobacco executives telling Congress that smoking is just fine,” Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman, whose state of California has been ravaged by climate-fuel wildfires, told CNN. “You always hope for accountability and progress. Honestly, looking at the big US fossil fuel companies, it’s hard to imagine them approaching this in that spirit.”
A House Oversight Committee investigation has been ongoing for about three months and is expected to continue beyond Thursday’s hearing. Lawmakers particularly want to know more about the companies’ more recent activities, from 2015 to the present, including their presence and ads on social media.
Lawmakers recently requested that the oil companies provide documents detailing any efforts to undercut climate science and policy from 2015 on.
The hearing will likely also cover research and public documents showing that fossil fuel companies were aware decades ago that continued use of oil, gas and coal would cause catastrophic climate change.
“By 1959, the American Petroleum Institute knew that burning fossil fuels could cause global warming ‘sufficient to melt the ice cap and submerge New York,’ ” Geoffrey Supran, research associate at Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science, told CNN. “Congress has the power to demand that we blow that closet door wide open and reveal potentially thousands, if not millions, of damning documents, which will finally bring all those skeletons tumbling out of the closet.”
Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, the chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment, previously told CNN the hearing will align with Congress’ planned timetable to pass massive climate and clean energy investments as part of President Joe Biden’s budget bill, which are still in negotiations.
It also comes days before the UN climate conference begins in Glasgow, Scotland, where world leaders will meet to discuss targets to reduce fossil-fuel emissions.
Khanna said the purpose of the hearing is not to try to “embarrass” fossil fuel executives but to get them to admit to disinformation and commit to stopping it in the future.
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