Executives of some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies — Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Shell — are set to appear before a congressional committee Thursday to address accusations that the industry spent millions of dollars to wage a decades-long disinformation campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change and to derail action to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The hearings mark the first time oil executives will be pressed to answer questions, under oath, about whether their companies misled the public about the reality of climate change by obscuring the scientific consensus: that the burning of fossil fuels is raising Earth’s temperature and sea levels with devastating consequences worldwide, including intensifying storms, worsening drought and deadlier wildfires.
House Democrats compare the inquiry with the historic tobacco hearings of the 1990s, which brought into sharp relief how tobacco companies had lied about the health dangers of smoking, paving the way for tough nicotine regulations. Climate scientists are now as certain that the burning of fossil fuels causes global warming as public health experts are sure that smoking tobacco causes cancer.
The evidence showing that fossil fuel companies distorted and downplayed the realities of climate change is well documented by academic researchers.
“For the first time in American history, Big Oil is going to have to answer to the American public on their climate disinformation,” said Ro Khanna, the Democratic representative from California who has led the effort to bring executives before Congress.
It is not at all clear that Thursday’s hearing will have the explosive fallout of the tobacco inquiry, in which seven executives stood with their hands raised to swear under oath before telling Congress they did not believe cigarettes were addictive. Photos of the moment were splashed across front pages nationwide.
The oil company executives are being allowed to attend Thursday’s events remotely by video, diminishing the possibility of a similarly arresting visual moment. And much of the hearing’s effectiveness will depend on coordination between the members, who are each allotted limited amounts of time to examine the executives, a format that can hinder a coherent line of questioning.
Some Republican leaders have denounced the hearing as a distraction and plan to use it to air concerns about the Biden administration’s climate change agenda, which they argue is harming the economy. They intend to call as a witness a former worker on the Keystone XL pipeline who lost his job when President Biden canceled the project on his first day in office.
“This is another publicity stunt by the Democrats,” said Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the senior Republican on the oversight committee. “It’s a terrible time to move away from fossil fuels when the economy is attempting to recover from a pandemic.”
Oil companies have denied lying to the public about climate change, and have said the industry is now taking bold steps to rein in emissions. “Meeting the demand for reliable energy — while simultaneously addressing climate change — is a huge undertaking and one of the defining challenges of our time,” Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil, will tell lawmakers, according to a preview of her remarks provided by the company.
A spokesman for the company said it had provided thousands of pages of documents to the committee. BP and Exxon said they were also cooperating.
Casey Norton, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said in a statement that the company “has long acknowledged that climate change is real and poses serious risks.” He said the company’s statements about climate science have been “truthful, fact-based, transparent and consistent with the broader mainstream scientific community at the time” and “evolved” as the science did.
As late as 2000, Exxon Mobil advertised in The New York Times that “scientists have been unable to confirm” that the burning of oil, gas and coal caused climate change. A decade before that, United Nations scientists had confirmed the planet had warmed by 0.5 degrees Celsius over the previous century because of fossil fuel-driven greenhouse gases.
The American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in statements that they looked forward to sharing their views in favor of climate change policies. A representative from Chevron did not respond to requests for comment.
The hearing comes a few days before the United Nations global warming conference begins in Glasgow, considered a crucial moment in efforts to address the threat of climate change. President Biden is expected to arrive at the talks having re-engaged the United States with global climate negotiations and also having moved to reinstate some of the climate regulations removed by the Trump administration. But in the face of dissenters within his own party, as well as continued industry lobbying, he has seen significant parts of his climate agenda disappear.
The congressional scrutiny also comes as environmentalists, cities, states and even some shareholders in energy companies themselves are ramping up pressure on the fossil fuel industry to address its central role in the climate crisis. The world’s leading energy organization, the International Energy Agency, said this year that nations need to immediately stop approving new oil and gas fields and move rapidly toward renewable forms of energy like wind and solar power if they want to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
The hearings come more than four decades after the oil industry first started to collect scientific evidence on global warming.
In 1978, Exxon Mobil embarked on a major project to study climate change, fitting one of its giant tankers with instruments to monitor rising levels of carbon dioxide in the sea and the atmosphere. But as oil prices collapsed in the 1980s, hurting profits, Exxon ended the research.
“The evidence that had been gathered in the late ’70s and early ’80s was already unequivocal,” said Edward A. Garvey, a geochemist who worked on Exxon’s early climate research in the those years. “We had a significant window, but we squandered the opportunity,” he said.
Oil executives themselves have said publicly that there was inconclusive evidence that human activities were having a significant effect on the global climate, even as scientists warned that such evidence was unequivocal. In one prominent example, Lee Raymond, Exxon’s chief executive at the time, said in 1997 that “Currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.”
Questions are also expected to focus on how companies worked with groups like the American Petroleum Institute and U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby the United States government against taking strong action on climate. The oil industry and the trade groups that represent them, for example, called the world’s first global climate change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, unrealistic and dangerous to the U.S. economy. In 2001 former President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol.
The heads of the American Petroleum Institute and Chamber of Commerce are also scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday.
“This is an industry with a long, documented history of misrepresenting the facts of climate change and the facts about their own activities,” said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard. “At this point the burden of proof is on them to prove that they’ve changed.”
The hearing, which is the start of a broader inquiry, is also expected to examine more recent efforts to block meaningful climate policy and legislation. The fossil fuel industry has opposed various climate policies, including a behind-the-scenes effort to roll back vehicle emissions standards adopted by the Obama administration.
Carolyn B. Maloney, the committee chairwoman, said she hoped the hearing would be “a turning point for increased regulation of the fossil fuel industry” and galvanize action on climate in Congress.
The catalyst for the House hearings was a sting operation this year by the activist group Greenpeace. The group captured on video an Exxon lobbyist who said that the company had fought climate science through “shadow groups” and targeted influential senators in an effort to weaken President Biden’s climate proposals.
Several of those senators later said that the lobbyist had exaggerated their relationship or that they had no dealings with him. Soon after, Mr. Khanna called for industry executives to testify before Congress.
The executives scheduled to testify are Darren Woods of Exxon, Michael Wirth of Chevron, David Lawler of BP, Ms. Watkins of Shell, Mike Sommers of American Petroleum Institute and Suzanne Clark of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Henry Waxman, who led the tobacco hearings of the 1990s, said the oil and gas executives would quite likely be savvier than the tobacco chiefs, whose all-out denial that cigarettes were addictive exposed a wide gap between their statements and the scientific evidence.
“I expect the executives of the oil companies to have learned the lessons from the tobacco hearings, and they’re going to say how concerned they now are about climate change,” he said. But the House committee needed to be ready to probe further, he said. Still, “it’s hard not to think that they’re still pursuing a deceptive public relations effort.”
All major oil and gas companies have publicly supported the Paris accord, the agreement among nations to fight climate change. BP and Shell have also made “net zero” commitments — eliminating as much carbon pollution as they put into the atmosphere — for their operations. But all four companies continue to invest heavily in fossil fuel extraction; renewable energy projects make up a fraction of their capital investments.