The top executives running Exxon Mobil, Shell Oil, BP America, and Chevron came before Congress for the first time Thursday to face an onslaught of questions—and heaps of criticism—about their longstanding hypocrisies over so-called commitments to wrangling greenhouse gas emissions.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee convened the tense hours-long hearing by drawing comparisons to the testimony delivered nearly 30 years ago, in the same room, when tobacco executives swore under oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive or smoking was harmful.
The fossil fuel giants have, to varying degrees in recent years, admitted climate change is real and have copped, albeit meekly, to their direct or indirect roles in exploding the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But as the adage goes, actions speak louder than words, and the companies’ actions have largely revolved around running PR campaigns purporting genuine concern for the fragile state of a planet presently choking on fossil fuel fumes.
This summer, Greenpeace UK released a video exposing Keith McCoy, Exxon’s then-senior director of federal relations, unwittingly confessing to an activist disguised as an oil company recruiter who Exxon uses to lobby Congress heartily to vote against critical climate change policies, including those found in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.
Further, McCoy admitted in the video, Exxon deems a carbon tax little more than a “great talking point” but admittedly, something that would likely never come to pass.
This type of disingenuousness on an issue that affects everyone—including the very CEOs who are spending their lifetimes reaping exorbitant fossil fuel profits—is exactly what Democrats hoped to unpack and attack on Thursday.
And attack they did.
Rep. Ro Khanna said in an interview with E&E last week that the hearing was “just the start of the investigation” that he, as chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on the environment, will pursue against those oil companies who have put on a “green” face in public and in private throw millions—$452.6 million since 2011, to be exact—at lobbying the federal government.
That figure stems from a staff report published Thursday by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee analyzing lobbying data by Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade organization with Mariana Trench-deep ties to the oil companies.
According to the report, just a meager 0.4% of the oil industry’s lobbying expenditures in the past 10 years has focused on carbon pricing legislation, and as for investments into “low carbon” initiatives, the figures are just 0.22% by Exxon and 2.3% by Shell.
A promise by Chevron to capture carbon at a rate of 5 million tons per year also fell woefully short. The analysis shows the oil giant reduced emissions by just 0.7%. For perspective, their emission rate in 2019 was a whopping 700 million tons. Shell’s 2020 emissions alone exceeded all emissions produced by Canada in the same year. And adding insult to injury, the staff memo found Shell still has plans underway to increase natural gas extraction by 20% in the years ahead.
During an unusually candid exchange for a congressional hearing, Khanna pressed all four executives—Darren Wood of Exxon, David Lawler of BP, Michael Wirth of Chevron, and Gretchen Watkins of Shell—with a simple question: Would they commit to ending their relationships with the API if the group continued its lobbying campaign against electric vehicles?
Silence filled the room.
“Here’s what’s so frustrating,” Khanna said. “I really don’t think you’re bad as the CEOs of the past. I think you have tough jobs, you got there, you got a horrible record on stuff, you are figuring out how you don’t get into litigation trouble while trying to tell the truth and I don’t think you want to be out there spreading climate disinformation but you’re funding these groups and they are spending millions in Congress to kill electric vehicles and they’re against [reducing] methane gas [emissions].”
He continued to beseech the executives: “You can tell them to knock it off. For the sake of the planet, you can end it. You can end that lobbying. Will any of you take the opportunity to look at API and say ‘Stop it’?”
Looking to Shell executive Gretchen Watkins, Khanna asked if she would “do something” given Shell’s own willingness just two short years ago to break some ties with API over “misaligned” positions on climate.
“Mrs. Watkins, come on. Will you do something? Will you commit to saying you won’t fund any group that engages in climate disinformation?” Khanna asked.
Watkins said what she would commit to “is being an active member of the American Petroleum Institute,” because some of its policies are still aligned with Shell’s overall vow to decrease emissions gradually over the next several decades.
Khanna asked if any of the executives would commit to having an independent audit to confirm that none of their funding is going toward any entity that leans toward climate denial.
Met with silence yet again, the California Democrat spoke more plainly.
“If your money is going to organizations that are against the fundamental values you claim you stand for, don’t you think you have some obligation to monitor where the money is going and to make some commitment today?” Khanna asked. “You’re just saying ‘we’re going to just keep spending, we’ll keep having conversations and if they want to do false advertising, fine, we will talk to them behind the scenes’? Is anyone prepared to make a statement saying we are going to take accountability on something important and stop funding groups that are actively engaged in any form of climate disinformation? Is there any form of commitment in any way? Even with a bunch of weasel words would be great.”
Each executive responded by promising only to increase scrutiny in climate policy arenas at their companies but did not outwardly commit to an audit. Michael Wirth, CEO at Chevron, mustered the admission that fossil fuels contribute to climate change but not much else, and Woods, Exxon’s CEO, gave the spiel that the former federal envoy for Exxon billed as “empty” in the sting video.
“We work with trade associations and we work with them to advance those positions consistent with the broader view of membership that each of the organizations serves. The API has evolved its climate position and supports a carbon tax along with a number of other constructive climate policies,” Woods said.
Rep. Katie Porter, also a California Democrat, relied on visual aids as the hearing wore on, asking Watkins to consider two jars she brought in, both filled with M&Ms. One jar represented Shell’s planned investment in renewables. It was nearly empty. The other represented the company’s investment in fossil fuels. That jar was almost overflowing.
“Does this look like a huge undertaking to you?” Porter said, pointing to the renewables jar.
Watkins told Porter that clean energy must have both demand and supply. “Which is why we are working very closely with our customers so that demand increases over time,” she said.
Porter did not back down and squared herself against Watkins, saying: “To me, this does not look like an adequate response to one of the defining challenges of our time. This is greenwashing. Shell is trying to fool people into thinking it is addressing the climate crisis when what it is actually doing is continuing to put money into fossil fuels.”