Exxon CEO accused of lying about climate science to congressional panel

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney likens oil company bosses’ responses to those of tobacco industry at historic hearing

The chief executive of ExxonMobil, Darren Woods, was accused of lying to Congress on Thursday after he denied that the company covered up its own research about oil’s contribution to the climate crisis.

For the first time, Woods and the heads of three other major petroleum companies were questioned under oath at a congressional hearing into the industry’s long campaign to discredit and deny the evidence that burning fossil fuels drove global heating. When pressed to make specific pledges or to stop lobbying against climate initiatives, all four executives declined.

The chair of the House oversight committee, Representative Carolyn Maloney, pressed Woods about statements by his predecessor, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, who in the 1990s said the scientific evidence for climate change was “inconclusive” and that “the case for global warming is far from air tight”. In 2002, Exxon ran advertisements in the New York Times calling climate science “unsettled”.

Malone put it to Woods that Exxon’s own scientists had repeatedly warned the company about the threat from burning fossil fuels as far back as the 1970s.

“There is a clear conflict between what Exxon CEO told the public and what Exxon scientists were warning privately for years,” she said.

Woods denied that Raymond or Exxon misled anyone.

“I do not agree that there was an inconsistency,” he said.

Maloney said the response reminded her of “another hearing that we had with the tobacco industry”.

“They said they did not believe that nicotine was addictive. Well, it came out that they lied. Tobacco nicotine was very addictive. And now I’m hearing from you that the science that was reported publicly, where your executives were denying climate change, we know that your scientists internally were saying that it’s a reality,” she said.

“So I was hoping that you would not be like the tobacco industry was and lie about this.”

The heads of the American operations of the other oil companies – Shell, Chevron and BP – also denied they misrepresented climate science or deceived the public.

They each said that they recognised global heating was a reality and a major challenge. But the executives did not accept that their companies had failed to take it seriously or that they were undermining attempts to cut greenhouse gases by funding trade groups pouring millions of dollars into lobbying Congress against tighter environmental laws.

“We accept the scientific consensus,” said Michael Wirth, the CEO of Chevron. “Climate change is real. Any suggestion that Chevron is engaged in disinformation and to mislead the public on these complex issues is simply wrong.”

But Maloney accused the oil companies of continuing the cover-up, including by hiding documents. She said she would take the unusual step of issuing subpoenas to force the firms to reveal what they knew.

“We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign and with these subpoenas we will,” she said.

The oil and gas industry, which spent about $100m on political lobbying last year, was strongly backed by a number of Republicans on the committee who sought to distract by denouncing Joe Biden’s energy policies.

Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House oversight committee, speaks at a hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change.
Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House oversight committee, speaks at a hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Republicans called their own witness, Neal Crabtree, who said he lost his job as a welder within three hours of Biden being sworn in as president because the Keystone pipeline was cancelled. Crabtree was used to portray Biden as colluding with China and Russia against America’s oil industry.

The highest-ranking Republican on the committee, Representative James Comer, questioned the legitimacy of the investigation. He said the committee would be better off spending its time investigating the White House’s handling of inflation, illegal immigration and the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In a hearing meant to focus on climate misinformation, several Republican members openly questioned the urgency of the climate crisis. Representative Clay Higgins called the hearing “a threat from within” because the American way of life was built on oil.

Another Republican member said Maloney owed the oil executives an apology for intruding on their right to free speech by pressing them to make a commitment that their firms will “no longer spend any money, either directly or indirectly, to oppose efforts to reduce emissions and address climate change”.

None of the executives would make a direct commitment.

Maloney showed the hearing a video secretly recorded by Greenpeace earlier this year of an Exxon lobbyist describing the oil giant’s backing for a carbon tax as a public relations ploy intended to stall more serious measures to combat the climate crisis.

“How did Exxon respond?” asked Maloney. “Did they come clean about this shocking conduct? No. Mr Woods called Mr McCoy’s comments inaccurate and then they fired him. And they are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were.”

While the oil executives largely maintained a united front, Representative Ro Khanna, a leading critic of the petroleum industry on the committee, drew out testimony that showed the European companies, Shell and BP, were working to cut production while the US firms, Exxon and Chevron, intended to increase drilling in the coming years.

Wirth said that that Chevron would raise oil production while cutting carbon emissions.

The hearing also questioned the leaders of two powerful lobby groups accused of acting as front organisations for big oil, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Khanna noted that API was heavily funded by oil company money as it resisted the expansion of infrastructure for electric vehicles and opposed a methane fee backed by Biden, including flooding Facebook with advertisements in recent months.

Khanna challenged each of the oil executives in turn to resign from API over its position on electric vehicles or to tell it to stop its opposition to a methane fee. All of them declined to do so.


Chris McGreal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Oil executives face ‘turning point’ US congressional hearing on climate crisis
The heads of top US oil companies will answer accusations that their firms have spent years lying about the climate crisis

Chris McGreal

28, Oct, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Exxon and BP called to testify on climate after ‘troubling’ new documents
Congressman calls documents related to the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to discredit climate science ‘very concerning’

Chris McGreal

16, Sep, 2021 @3:13 PM

Article image
How cities and states could finally hold fossil fuel companies accountable
These lawsuits may force fossil fuel companies to reveal what they lied about

Chris McGrealand Alvin Chang

30, Jun, 2021 @7:01 AM

Article image
'Greenwashing': fossil fuel execs to hold invite-only forum at UN climate summit
BP, Shell and Chevron representatives will be at event on sidelines of UN climate summit

Sandra Laville

18, Sep, 2019 @6:01 AM

Article image
Big oil’s ‘wokewashing’ is the new climate science denialism
Academic researchers say the fossil fuel industry has a new tool to delay efforts to curb emissions – a social justice strategy

Amy Westervelt

09, Sep, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Philippines investigates Shell and Exxon over climate change
A legal case will consider if the emissions of 50 fossil fuel companies violate the human rights of those hit by extreme weather

Emma Howard in Manila

07, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
In court, Big Oil rejected climate denial | Dana Nuccitelli
Dana Nuccitelli: If even oil companies accept human-caused global warming, why doesn’t everybody?

Dana Nuccitelli

23, Mar, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
Exxon, BP and Shell back carbon tax proposal to curb emissions
Oil giants call for ‘consensus climate solution’ and support proposal devised by rightwing Climate Leadership Council

Oliver Milman

20, Jun, 2017 @4:32 PM

Article image
Oil firm bosses’ pay ‘incentivises them to undermine climate action’
Lucrative pay and share options linked to continued extraction of fossil fuels by ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP

Jonathan Watts

15, Apr, 2021 @4:00 AM

Article image
Oil giants must cut output by a third to meet climate target – study
Seven largest companies must make 35% cut by 2040 to limit climate crisis and meet 1.5C goal, says thinktank

Jillian Ambrose

01, Nov, 2019 @1:02 PM