A congressional committee will subpoena Chevron, Exxon, Shell and other oil and gas companies for internal documents to determine whether they fund climate disinformation.
“I do not take this step lightly,” US Rep Carolyn Maloney told lawmakers during a hearing with some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies to probe allegations of a decades-long campaign to spread disinformation on the science that their products are driving the climate crisis.
“We are at code red for climate and I am committed to doing everything I can to help rescue this planet and save it for our children,” she said.
During the six-hour-long landmark House Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday, US Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the panel that “one thing that often gets lost in these conversations is that some of us have to actually live in the future you all are setting on fire for us”.
“We do not have the privilege or the luxury of lobbyist spin,” she said. “It’s incredibly important – that we don’t reach net zero [emissions] in some imaginary future – but that we actually cut through carbon emissions reductions.”
The heads of ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron and Shell appeared at the hearing alongside representatives from the American Petroleum Institute and US Chamber of Commerce.
It marked the first time that such figures testified to Congress under oath.
Oil and gas officials denied spreading disinformation about the climate crisis and rejected allegations that the industry withheld evidence about the dangers of global heating.
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said the company “has long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change, and it has devoted significant resources to addressing those risks,” though Mr Woods’s and similar statements were immediately challenged by Democratic lawmakers.
Chevron CEO Michael Wirth said that “any suggestion that Chevron has engaged in an effort to spread disinformation and mislead the public on these complex issues is simply wrong”.
An analysis released by the committee on Thursday determined that public support for such issues among oil companies and lobbyists “has not been matched by meaningful action to advance these policy results, and that the industry may be using support for reforms to bolster its public image while continuing to produce and invest in fossil fuels – actions that are making the climate crisis worse”.
Since the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global emissions was signed, companies also “exaggerated the significance” of their actions to combat the crises “while hiding or downplaying their continued investments in fossil fuels”, according to the report.
The committee’s chairs compared such tactics to those used by tobacco companies in the late 20th century to resist regulation from confronted with evidence linking cigarettes to cancer.
In response to the executives’ testimony, Mahyar Sorour, deputy legislative director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement: “Today’s hearing made it clearer than ever that Congress must prioritise eliminating the billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded handouts the fossil fuel industry currently receives.
“Big Oil has spent decades and tens of millions of dollars working to deceive the public and spread disinformation about fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change. Now, in the face of irrefutable evidence that the only way to avert the worst of the climate crisis is to immediately stop the expansion of fossil fuel production, Big Oil executives are seeking to greenwash their activities and continue to mislead the American people about their role in this crisis.”
Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director in the climate and energy programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “This hearing put fossil fuel industry executives on record about what their companies and industry groups knew about climate change, and when — and what they did despite what they knew. But there are a lot of outstanding questions, and the public deserves answers.
“Congress should pursue this investigation vigorously, because evidence of fossil fuel industry disinformation is highly relevant to the policies being considered for driving swift and deep reductions in global warming emissions, accelerating the energy transition and strengthening corporate disclosure of climate financial risks and political activity.”
She added: “Evidence brought to light in today’s hearing and the ongoing investigation could also inform climate accountability lawsuits brought by dozens of US states, cities, and counties, and growing shareholder pressure on the leadership of these corporations.”
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