U.S. House Democrats grill Big Oil in climate deception probe

By Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Executives from some of the world’s biggest oil companies denied in U.S. congressional testimony on Thursday that they continue to misinform the public about the role of fossil fuels in climate change and resisted calls to ask lobbying groups they fund to stop obstructing climate-friendly policies.

It was the first time that executives of the top oil majors – ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, BP America and Chevron – and the heads of the American Petroleum Institute (API) and Chamber of Commerce answered questions about climate change in Congress under oath.

Democratic Representative Ro Khanna said at the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing that oil companies have started to improve their talking points around climate change. But Khanna said their support of lobbying groups that either deny climate science or work to kill major climate policies contradicts their statements.

“I don’t believe that you purposely want to be out there spreading climate misinformation but you’re out there funding these groups,” Khanna said.

Appearing before the panel were CEOs Darren Woods of ExxonMobil, Gretchen Watkins of Shell Oil, David Lawler of BP America and Mike Wirth of Chevron. They all testified virtually.

Khanna asked them if any would commit to an independent audit to verify that none of their funds were going to groups that deny climate science, or whether they would commit to pulling their memberships from API even if the oil lobby group continues to lobby against policies such as electric vehicle credits and methane fees.

None of the executives said yes.

Committee Democrats said the hearing opens a year of investigations into whether Big Oil has deceived Americans about its role in climate change.

The hearing came as President Joe Biden heads to Scotland for U.N. climate talks and as Congress haggles over climate provisions in major social spending and infrastructure legislation.

Environmental groups and their congressional allies hope the probe evokes the Big Tobacco hearings of the 1990s when tobacco industry executives were grilled about their knowledge of the addictive properties of their products, which began a shift in public opinion about that industry.

“We will demand accountability from Big Oil for their role in fueling the climate crisis and deceiving the public, and we will urge the industry to finally take meaningful action to rein in emissions from fossil fuels before it is too late,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney, the committee chairwoman.

The United Nations this summer released a report saying that unless immediate, rapid and large-scale action is taken to reduce emissions, the average global temperature is likely to reach or cross the 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7 degrees F) warming threshold within 20 years.

Oil executives and trade group officials at the hearing used the platform to try to distance themselves from previous efforts to dismiss climate science, saying their policies evolved as the science became more clear.

Exxon’s Woods said the company “responded accordingly” when the “scientific community’s understanding of climate change developed” and maintained that he believes oil and gas will still be needed to meet growing global energy demand.

Woods and Chevron’s Wirth played up oil and gas as essential for operation of hospitals, schools and offices.

BP America’s Lawler and Shell’s Watkins talked about their recognition that climate change was a problem in the 1990s and about their current efforts to adapt their business models to add more renewable energy and lower emissions.

‘PARTISAN THEATER’

Representative James Comer, top panel’s Republican, did not mention climate change in his opening remarks and said the panel should be addressing inflation and high energy prices he linked to Biden administration policies.

“The purpose of this hearing is clear: to deliver partisan theater for prime-time news,” Comer said.

The lone Republican witness, Neal Crabtree, a welder who lost his job after Biden canceled the Keystone XL oil pipeline, said his main crisis is not climate change but paying for his mortgage and food for his family.

The Democratic-led committee criticized the companies’ scant support for the Paris climate agreement. It released an analysis that found from 2015, when the pact was agreed, to 2021, Exxon reported in its lobbying disclosures only one instance of lobbying on the Paris Agreement, and none on any of the 28 bills related to the pact.

“That means that only 0.06% of Exxon 1,543 total instances of legislative lobbying since 2015 has been devoted to the Paris Agreement or related legislation,” the analysis said.

Woods emphasized Exxon’s investments in carbon capture, a technology to capture emissions for burial underground or to pump them into aging oilfields to squeeze out more crude.

The energy executives also said that more time is needed for a transition to cleaner energy.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner; Editing by David Gregorio)

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