Big Oil to Testify on Climate Change Disinformation—What This Could Mean for Green Economy

This Thursday, executives representing some of the world's largest oil companies will appear before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to answer questions for the first time regarding the industry's alleged efforts to obscure science on the role of fossil fuels in global warming.

Memos obtained from companies like ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell show that oil firms have possessed scientific knowledge of the devastating role of fossil fuel emissions since the 1980s. Nonetheless, companies allegedly promoted disinformation around the harm of their products through lobbying campaigns and secretly funding studies aimed to combat data affirming climate change.

These efforts recently came under greater scrutiny after an investigation by Greenpeace U.K. brought renewed attention to the issue.

An undercover Greenpeace journalist spoke with Keith McCoy, a senior director in Exxon's Washington D.C. government affairs team, over Zoom. During this conversation, McCoy admitted the company worked with "shadow groups" to thwart early climate change efforts and also put up a "fight" against some of the science.

Go Bigger On Climate, Care, And Justice!
Representatives Ro Khanna and Carolyn Maloney will lead the Wednesday hearing focussed on Big Oil's role in disinformation around climate change. Above, Khanna speaks at "Go Bigger on Climate, Care, and Justice!" on July 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network

In wake of this report, California Congressman Ro Khanna, who chairs the Oversight Committee's Subcommittee on Environment, told Greenpeace he planned to make Exxon and its peers answer before Congress. With this moment upon him, he told Newsweek that he feels these hearings could represent a turning point in public opinion.

"Most Americans aren't aware that these companies have (engaged in climate denialism) or are continuing to do it. Once they're made aware of it, the polling is off the charts that they are shocked by it and oppose it," Khanna said. "What we need to do is expose these companies to start to turn American public opinion."

Khanna hopes that by making these companies publicly answer to these alleged transgressions that they will become "incentivized to stop their disinformation and lobbying and actually change their actions."

Whereas in the past oil companies often conducted their own PR and lobbying efforts, today these companies elect to carry out some of these efforts through trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute (API), a nonprofit that conducts congressional lobbying and boasts revenue of nearly $239 million, according to its most recent tax filing.

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While in the 1980s fewer Americans were familiar with climate change, many citizens now see it as a life or death issue, forcing petroleum companies to respond. In this photo, an aerial view shows Marathon Petroleum Corp's Los Angeles Refinery, the state's largest producer of gasoline, on April 22, 2020, in Carson, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

During his conversation with Greenpeace, McCoy referred to firms like API as the oil industry's "whipping boys," deployed to influence policy in a manner that allows the companies to avoid public scrutiny as they deploy climate-conscious messaging. Over the years, the API has faced a growing number of lawsuits, including one from the state of Minnesota, for its alleged role in "downplaying the threat of climate change."

"What our hearing in part wants to expose is to get the money trail to stop," Khanna told Newsweek. "But, that's difficult because the big oil companies can engage in greenwashing while letting other people do their dirty work."

Oil companies have collectively pledged to prepare for "lower-carbon" futures. While European companies British Petroleum (BP) and Shell are working toward this through billion-dollar investments in renewables, American giants Chevron and Exxon remain focused on finding a future for fossil fuels, investing in technologies aimed to suck carbon from the air.

America continues to lag behind Europe in meeting its climate goals. Seventy-eight percent of Europeans expressed concern over climate issues as opposed to 63 percent of Americans, a poll by the European Investment Bank found. With a number of state economies tied heavily to the industry, moving the needle on the issue could stand as a major challenge in certain areas. Khanna said that spurring action after these hearings requires working around that challenge.

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States including Texas, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Kentucky derive large portions of economic wealth from the fossil fuel sector, leaving many workers reliant on the industry. Here, flared natural gas is burned off at Apache Corporations' operations at the Deadwood natural gas plant on February 5, 2015, in Garden City, Texas. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

"We've got to make them a jobs guarantee because their concerns are legitimate," Khanna said. "We've got to show them the proof. We should say 100,000 guaranteed high-paying, good jobs in clean technology will be in states like West Virginia and Kentucky."

Khanna believes that once these individuals see these jobs rooted into the fabric of their communities, they will become more willing to embrace "bold climate action." Rather than tackling this issue through "think tank speech" and Washington lectures, he said these actions should be taken through grassroots conversations with these constituencies.

The Endless Frontier Act, sponsored by Khanna in the House and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Senate, aims to do just that. Through the creation of a Directorate for Technology and Innovation in the National Science Foundation, the bill would allow for the designation of "regional technology hubs" designed to facilitate economic in certain areas of the country.

Right now, that bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce where it will sit before being put up to vote. While the upcoming hearings may very well open a new chapter in America's relationship with the oil industry, Khanna stresses the need for these economic policies, like the Endless Frontier Act, to be implanted during this moment. When it comes to uniting the country around clean energy, he said everyone must walk away with a "win."

"We have to really incentivize those states to have a win. We need a moment like Lincoln during the passage of the 13th Amendment where he went and he figured out what states and legislators needed then gave it to them," Khanna said. "We just have to figure out what it is that we can give these states or individual legislators to make (clean energy) a win."

A spokesperson for Shell told Newsweek in a statement: "We're working hard to provide the Committee with materials and look forward to answering their questions. In a very short time, we have delivered to the Committee thousands of pages of documents that speak directly to Shell's position on climate change over several decades, our strong support for the Paris Agreement, and our efforts to be an industry leader in the transition to a lower-carbon future."

"We welcome the opportunity to take part in the discussion tomorrow," an ExxonMobil spokesperson said. "ExxonMobil has long acknowledged that climate change is real and poses serious risks. In addition to our substantial investments in next-generation technologies, ExxonMobil also advocates for responsible climate-related policies. Our public statements about climate change are and have been, truthful, fact-based, transparent, and consistent with the views of the broader, mainstream scientific community at the time. ExxonMobil has contributed to the development of climate science for decades and has made its work publicly available. And as the scientific community's understanding of climate change developed, ExxonMobil responded accordingly."

"API looks forward to testifying before the House Oversight Committee and advancing our priorities of pricing carbon, regulating methane and reliably producing American energy," an API spokesperson said.

Newsweek contacted Chevron and BP for comment, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Update 10/27/21 1:30 PM ET - This story has been updated with comments from ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute.

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Oil companies have looked to form a more climate-conscious identity in recent years, with Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum investing heavily in renewables. Above, BP's oil refinery complex operates at Grangemouth in central Scotland, on November 1, 2004. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images