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Big Oil Is Winning Big This Week

At the oversight committee hearing convened by Representative Ro Khanna, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell executives all but admitted they have no plans to renounce climate misinformation.

Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods

Oil and gas industry executives have a lot to be thankful for. On Thursday, hours before the execs were set to testify under oath before the House Oversight Committee, alongside the heads of the American Petroleum Institute, or API, and the Chamber of Commerce, the Biden administration announced its framework for a $1.75 trillion reconciliation budget.

That left climate reporters—including yours truly—with a lot on their plate. It meant fewer people, perhaps, might see oil executives decline to commit to leave the API, which has spent some $500,000 on Facebook ads in recent weeks against electric vehicles and campaigned to weaken proposed constraints on the methane emissions in the gas industry. None of the CEOs who took the stand were even willing to criticize API for its continued efforts to block climate policy. After all, they fund those efforts to the tune of $10 million per year in API membership fees.

Environment Subcommittee Chair Ro Khanna—whose office convened the hearing—pressed the executives on this point several times, asking them to leave API if it continued to lobby against climate policies. “Could you commit, any of you?” Khanna asked. “Would you commit to saying you’re not going to fund any group that’s going to engage in climate disinformation, at least?”

“What I’ll commit to,” Shell U.S. Country Chair Gretchen Watkins said in response, “is continuing to be an active member of the API.”

In a less busy week, more people might have seen that exchange. They might have seen Darren Woods admitting to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that he had personally lobbied members of Congress about the reconciliation package. They might have seen Ocasio-Cortez point out that API has spent $55.6 million lobbying Congress in the last 10 months of infrastructure battles.*

“We’re leaving everything on the field here, in terms of our opposition to anti-energy provisions,” API CEO Mike Sommers told CNN earlier this month. (Ocasio-Cortez repeated the quote.) Representative Rashida Tlaib pointed out generous industry funding for front groups that have kneecapped national and state-level climate policy efforts. The industry spent $40 million, for instance, protecting the oil and gas industry’s ability to drill within 1,000 feet of playgrounds from a 2018 ballot initiative. Then there are all the documents, reported on at length by Inside Climate News, showing the disconnect between what Exxon told the public about climate change and what its own scientists knew to be true. Shell knew, too.

Watkins and her colleagues on the virtual stand—ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, Chevron CEO Mike Wirth, BP America CEO David Lawler, API CEO Mike Sommers, and Chamber of Commerce CEO Suzanne Clark—had plenty to be happy about elsewhere in the Capitol, too. Having already funneled $462,500 in political action committee money to Senator Joe Manchin, who killed the Clean Electricity Payment Program (the centerpiece of the Build Back Better Act’s climate provisions), they could now claim another win. The text of the Build Back Better Act bill released during Thursday’s hearing revealed that the last remaining provision directly targeting fossil fuel emissions—a fee on methane emissions—had been stuffed with a $775 million fossil fuel subsidy.

As several Democratic members of the Oversight Committee reiterated today, the hardly progressive International Energy Agency has stated that “no new oil and natural gas fields are needed in the net zero pathway.” The U.N.-backed Production Gap Report has found that fossil fuel production needs to decline 6 percent per year in order to keep warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target outlined in the Paris Agreement. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the world’s gold-standard clearinghouse for climate science—has stated repeatedly that emissions from fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming. Yet directly going after fossil fuel production remains a third rail not only in Congress but around the world; fossil fuels don’t even make an appearance in the Paris Agreement.

That third rail is what fossil fuel companies and their trade associations have been working on for years. They built it with millions of dollars in advertising and astroturf campaigns, aggressive lobbying, and generous campaign contributions. Despite the fact that burning fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change, these companies maintain that some combination of new technologies will soon be able to eat up all the carbon dioxide oil and gas companies continue to pour into the atmosphere with abandon. “Can you commit to lowering production?” Khanna asked Woods in one telling exchange. “We’re committed to lowering emissions,” he replied. It’s the kind of nonsense that’ll find a receptive audience at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP26, in stall after stall advertising the wonders of net-zero pledges.

It’s refreshing, at long last, to see Democrats openly going after fossil fuel executives. At the end of the hearing, Representative Carolyn Maloney even announced that she’ll subpoena them, after they failed to provide documents the committee had requested. It’s thanks to these executives, however, that this spirit has yet to be translated into legislation.

* A previous version of this story misstated the amount that Ocasio-Cortez said API has spent in lobbying Congress.