During a historic hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform on October 28, the executives of ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute (API), refused to admit to their decades-long climate disinformation campaign that is now well-documented in publicly available documents uncovered by journalists and researchers.
If that weren’t enough, the executives continued to deny climate science under oath, albeit with a slight twist from their previous disinformation campaign. Instead of denying the science establishing that fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis, they’re now denying the science establishing the urgent need for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.
In other words, they’re still lying — a strategy that was on full display in this blockbuster hearing.
The ultimate questions at hand were whether the chiefs of the oil and gas industry would:
Over the course of the six-hour, somewhat surreal, hearing, the answer to each question was a resounding no.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chair of the Subcommittee on the Environment, reminded the witnesses that he and other lawmakers intended to unearth the truth: “Today, the CEOs of the largest oil companies in the world have a choice,” he told them. “You can either come clean and admit to your ongoing misrepresentations and inconsistencies and stop supporting climate disinformation or, you can sit there, in front of the American public, and lie under oath.”
The industry’s response, repeated by each executive in remarkable lockstep, came down to the false claim that there’s no climate crisis. Rather, as API President Larry Sommers put it, there’s a climate “trilemma”: We’ve got to “provide energy affordably, reliably, and cleanly.” Daunting, but no need for alarm, much less a code red, as the fossil fuel industry — and only the fossil fuel industry — can get the world out of the trilemma by increasing production of fossil fuels and expanding polluting fossil fuel infrastructure.
That is fraudulent, and it’s on record under oath. Instead of taking the opportunity to acknowledge they knowingly fueled the climate crisis with disinformation and corruption, all the fossil fuel executives continued denying both climate science and the industry’s responsibility for the myriad harms they have caused.
Disinformation Plus ‘Path-Dependence’
In a recent article, I characterized the industry’s business strategy as one of “disinformation plus path-dependence.” This dual-pronged strategy involves aggressively marketing products to create a fossil-fuel dependent society, coupled with massive and systematic disinformation campaigns to counter and obfuscate the catastrophic dangers of those products.
The strategy is highly adaptable to today’s information landscape, as it can morph in response to increasing public revelations about the climate dangers of fossil fuel production and use. On display throughout the House hearing was the industry’s latest manifestation of the strategy, which is designed to allow the industry to maintain its social license to continue profiting off fossil fuel extraction, even as we all burn.
The industry’s disinformation campaign has simply shifted gears, from denial of the science establishing that fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis, to denying the science establishing the need for a dramatic and rapid transition away from fossil fuels.
In a world with 8 billion people, demand for energy will, of course, continue. But as reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Administration have repeatedly concluded, energy simply cannot continue to come from fossil fuels if we are to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels — a goal reaffirmed by almost 200 countries this month at the international climate meeting in Glasgow.
Furthermore, we will achieve the shift to clean, carbon-free sources of energy only if the United States and other nations of the Global North stop subsidizing fossil fuels and shift public funds to a just energy transition. Yet each executive astoundingly — and falsely — testified that continued fossil fuel production is the solution to the climate crisis.
Throughout the hearing, industry leaders attacked policies that even suggest a slowing, much less a stoppage, of fossil fuel production, voicing vehement opposition to the Biden administration’s pause on oil and gas leasing and the provision of the Build Back Better Act imposing a methane fee. In fact, our real and only solution is immediately transitioning away from a fossil fuels.
Such opposition makes sense as a matter of industry — but not planetary — survival, as the executives also made clear that the industry’s solution to the climate “trilemma” is increasing production of “natural gas,” which is basically methane (although the industry never uses those two words in the same sentence).
Methane, a greenhouse gas that is over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, was a particular focus of the IPCC in its most recent report. The report’s authors concluded that atmospheric levels of methane are higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years, and that “[s]trong, rapid, and sustained reductions” are necessary to stay within the Paris temperature limit of 1.5°C.
Denying Climate Justice
Importantly, the industry’s strategy is designed not only to deny the science establishing that we must stop fossil fuel extraction and production, but also to deny justice to the Black, brown, and Indigenous communities who have always been both on the frontlines of the climate crisis and on the fencelines of the industry’s polluting infrastructure. As Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a member of the Environment Subcommittee, put it, the industry has deemed these communities “expendable.”
Instead of taking responsibility for these harms, as Exxon CEO Darren Woods confirmed under questioning by Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), the industry is pushing for even more governmental subsidies than it already enjoys to support a massive buildout of pipelines and carbon capture technology that would continue harming frontline communities, as well as ensure that we do not exit the fossil-fuel dependent path in time to maintain a safe climate.
At the close of the hearing, Committee Chair Rep. Carol Maloney (D-N.Y.) pledged to “get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, beginning by subpoenaing internal documents from the companies. She has since followed through on that pledge.
Certainly, getting to the bottom of the industry’s bad acts and deception is important. But it will make a difference only if it the legislative and judicial branches of our government hold the industry accountable for its deception. A good start is passing the Polluters Pay Climate Fund Act, legislation recently introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), which would require the biggest polluters to begin paying their fair share for a just and clean energy transition and for adaptation measures necessary for survival in our new climate reality. And in the courts, judges should allow state and local government cases against the industry to proceed to trial.
The oil and gas industry’s tragically successful disinformation campaign is only one instance of organized disinformation being allowed to pollute societal and public policy discourse (albeit a particularly catastrophic one). Many have compared this hearing to the 1994 congressional hearing in which tobacco industry executives lied under oath about the addictiveness of nicotine, for example. And we continue to experience harms because of disinformation campaigns about COVID-19, vaccinations, and election integrity. At another House hearing earlier this year, legislators questioned the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter about the dangerously effective use of their sites to rapidly and widely disseminate such disinformation.
Thus, more than ever, it is clear that, in addition to backward-looking laws that hold the peddlers of disinformation accountable for their actions, we need forward-looking laws designed to prevent disinformation and protect democratic discourse. Federal legislators would be wise to take up that charge.