Congressional Democrats presented fresh evidence Thursday which they say proves that oil companies are continuing to mislead the public on climate change and undercut global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
At a hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, lawmakers read from newly released documents obtained from ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP as part of an ongoing investigation into the fossil fuel industry and its role driving climate change.
Among the documents was an internal memo sent to ExxonMobil’s chief executive, Darren Woods, that apparently sought to weaken the climate commitments of an international oil industry group, as well as internal emails from Exxon and other companies showing employees appearing to question the speed or seriousness of their efforts to pivot their businesses to focus on cleaner products.
Democrats say the documents also show that the companies’ climate pledges depend on “unproven technologies whose future success and commercialization are not assured.”
The hearing came as the oil companies are sitting on some of their biggest profits ever—Exxon reported $17.9 billion in profit over just three months this year—with the war in Ukraine having sent oil and gas prices skyrocketing. Democrats accused the companies of maximizing financial returns while Americans suffer from rising costs and the increasingly damaging impacts of extreme weather, rather than using their revenue to follow through on their pledges to reduce emissions.
“These companies used these windfall profits to enrich investors and boost salaries of top executives,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, the committee chairwoman. “Their clean energy investments, however, were a drop in the bucket.”
Republicans on the committee largely defended the oil companies and criticized the Democrats’ energy policies, saying Democrats should be trying to increase oil and gas production in the face of high prices, rather than targeting the energy industry.
“This investigation is part of the Democrats’ war on America’s energy producers,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky and the committee’s ranking member.
Democrats had invited directors from the major oil companies to testify, but they declined to appear. The hearing, which was originally scheduled for March but was rescheduled after Russia invaded Ukraine, was the third held by the committee as part of its investigation into efforts by oil companies to sow doubt about climate science and derail or delay efforts to address warming.
At the first hearing last year, top executives from each of the four companies testified by video conference and rejected accusations that they had misled anyone about climate change. Instead, they said, their companies recognize climate change as a threat and are helping to address the problem by investing in low-carbon fuels, carbon capture technology, renewable energy and by lowering their own direct emissions.
Maloney said the companies have obstructed the committee’s investigation since then, refusing to turn over some documents while releasing massive volumes of press releases and other public documents. But, she argued, the documents that they have turned over, some of which the committee released on Wednesday night, already show contradictions with the company’s public statements.
One August 2019 memo, addressed to Exxon’s Woods and written by Peter Trelenberg, the company’s manager of environmental planning and policy, detailed concerns about a planned announcement by the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, an industry group of which Exxon is a member. The memo pointed to a drafted statement on “responding to the climate challenge,” saying: “Need to remove reference to Paris Agreement as support for Paris Agreement goals and member company advocacy are separate concepts and are not directly related. Creating a tie between our advocacy/engagements and the Paris Agreement could create a potential commitment to advocate on the Paris Agreement goals.” It noted that support for the Paris Agreement was mentioned elsewhere in the pending announcement by the group.
Notes on a 2018 Exxon presentation say that even though the company had been researching algae-derived biofuels “for a long time,” the technology was still “decades away from the scale we need.” Exxon has long promoted its research into algae biofuels as part of its efforts to help lower emissions.
Democrats also pointed to internal emails at Shell which they say reveal that the company “did not plan to take meaningful independent action” to reach net-zero emissions, as some of its public messaging has suggested, but was instead stating vague ambitions.
Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, an advocacy group that works to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change, said the documents could help make the case that oil companies are continuing to mislead the public. The release of the documents, he said, “went a long way to establishing the fact that all their current posturing on net-zero and investments in renewables is just the latest form of lying they have come up with.”
Todd Spitler, an Exxon spokesman, said in an emailed statement that “We have supported the Paris Agreement from its start in 2015 and continue to support the U.S. government’s participation in the framework. The selective publication of dated emails, without context, is a deliberate attempt to generate a narrative that does not reflect the commitment of ExxonMobil—and its employees, to address climate change and play a leading role in the transition to a net-zero future.”
Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, said in an email, “Of the nearly half-million pages provided to the Committee, the small handful they chose to highlight are evidence of Shell’s extensive efforts to set aggressive targets, evolve its portfolio and meaningfully participate in the energy transition. Within that pursuit are challenging internal and external discussions that signal Shell’s intent to form partnerships and share pathways we deem critical to becoming a net-zero energy business.”
The hearing comes at a challenging time for oil companies. While they are enjoying soaring profits, they are also facing accelerating global efforts to limit emissions. In August, Congress passed its most substantial climate legislation ever, which could reduce domestic demand for oil and gas in coming years.
Still, the industry won several major concessions in the legislation, including a requirement that prevents the federal government from developing renewable energy on federal lands unless it continues leasing those lands for oil and gas drilling. The climate law also included a substantial increase in a tax incentive for carbon capture and storage, which could funnel billions in public money to oil majors if they follow through on their stated goals to deploy the technology. Many environmental advocates have condemned that support, saying carbon capture is unlikely to reduce emissions at a meaningful scale, and that it could instead extend the life of fossil fuels.
The companies also face a growing number of lawsuits that pose perhaps a more acute threat. More than 20 municipalities and states have sued major oil companies, accusing them of misleading consumers or the public about the risks posed by climate change. Most of the lawsuits seek damages from the companies that could run into the many billions of dollars, to help pay for the costs imposed by rising seas, heat waves and extreme weather. At least two of those cases, in Hawaii and Massachusetts, are progressing closer to discovery, a stage in which the plaintiffs could demand potentially damning internal documents from the companies.
Chevron filed a lengthy motion earlier this week in a lawsuit brought by the city and county of Honolulu, in which it responded to the plaintiffs by saying the public and policymakers “have long been aware of voluminous scientific research on these important issues,” but decided to continue buying and promoting fossil fuels anyway. To support its case, Chevron’s lawyers pointed to decades of widespread discussion of climate change, including in television shows “such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Cheers, Beverly Hills, 90210, Frasier, Alf, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Captain Planet, and Power Rangers.”
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At the hearing Thursday, Democrats also looked to raise pressure on the companies by focusing on the impacts of warming on frontline communities. They heard from Thomas Joseph, of the Hoopa Valley Tribe of California, who spoke about the wildfire smoke that has inundated his community in recent weeks. As the fires have worsened in recent years, he said, they have stripped bare the hillsides, which have then fallen as mudslides into rivers, killing the salmon on which his people depend. He told of old-growth trees so weakened by extreme weather that they have snapped under heavy winter snows.
“We must hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the atrocities they have caused,” Joseph said.
Roishetta Ozane, of Sulphur, Louisiana, spoke about having to evacuate ahead of a series of hurricanes last year, after which, “everything was destroyed.” A legal advocate from Kentucky recounted the damage caused by flooding there this summer, and the devastating impact it had on poor residents.
Earlier in the hearing, Maloney had said the committee would continue to press the oil companies to turn over more documents, and suggested the investigation could have more to come. Maloney herself has only a few months left in her position, after she lost to a colleague last month in a primary election for her newly-redrawn district. And, if Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives in November, the committee’s investigation would likely end with her departure.