Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats on the House Oversight Committee grilled Big Oil on its role in lobbying against historic funding to mitigate climate change and other climate policies at a hearing on Thursday.
The US is on the brink of passing ambitious legislation that could help put the country, and the rest of the world, on track to avoiding climate catastrophe. But the bill’s passage is no certain thing, and the fossil fuel industry has been among the groups aggressively opposing some of the most ambitious climate policy proposals.
“It’s not lost on me that we are having a hearing today surrounding fossil fuel misinformation and disinformation campaigns on the same day that we are scheduled to vote on legislation that has been deeply influenced by the lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry,” said Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to be speaking with the CEOs of BP, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute.”
Today’s all-day House Oversight Committee hearing marked the first time Congress members not only got to question the nation’s top oil executives under oath about their long history of sowing doubt about the climate crisis but also on the industry’s current climate priorities.
The result was a series of increasingly heated clashes between Democrats and the industry leaders, culminating in committee chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s announcement that she will subpoena the companies for internal documents on their funding of disinformation. The committee had first requested the same documents ahead of the hearing but instead were largely given information publicly available on their websites or annual reports.
“I had hoped today would be a turning point for the oil industry,” Maloney said. “I was grateful to hear the top fossil fuel CEOs finally admit that climate change is real, that burning fossil fuels is causing it, and that we must act urgently to fix it. But I was disappointed we also heard much of the same denial and deflection we have heard before.”
In the fall of 2015, Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times published a pair of overlapping investigations detailing how Exxon’s own scientists studied and confirmed that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels contributed to climate change in the 1970s and 1980s. That reporting not only shined a new light on Exxon’s later moves to publicly question the science and push back on climate policies but also sparked further investigations into what other energy companies knew internally about climate change versus what they said publicly.
While several Republicans attended the hearing, they largely spent the time talking about anything other than climate change and accusing Democrats of abusing their power. Some of them even thanked the oil executives for their continued production of oil.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, directly asked top oil officials during the hearing if they would commit to having an independent audit verifying their funding was not going into climate denial, none responded.
When it was her turn to speak, Ocasio-Cortez brought up how Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, boasted on television about his oil trade group’s efforts aggressively opposing President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package.
“Frankly, Mr. Sommers, I appreciate your candor because most lobbying organization heads aren’t as forthright and transparent about their efforts to manipulate US legislation,” she said, before asking: “So what does that all-out approach look like? Am I correct, Mr. Sommers, that the oil and gas industry overall, including the companies that you represent and members you represent today, have spent about $55.6 million in lobbying within the last 10 months — this year alone. That number sounds right to you, correct?”
“Congresswoman, I don’t have those numbers at my disposal,” Sommers responded.
Then Ocasio-Cortez turned her sights on Darren Woods, the chief executive officer of oil giant ExxonMobil: “Are you aware of an individual named Keith McCoy?”
“I am,” Woods responded, adding: “He was a senior adviser in our Washington office.”
“Earlier this year,” she said, “McCoy was recorded in a private session saying: ‘I liken lobbying to fishing. You have to bait. You throw that bait out there just to reel members of Congress in because they are a captive audience. They know that they need you and I need them.’ He also alluded to having weekly calls with certain members of Congress as debates around reconciliation were being formed. Are you aware of these calls?”
Woods said he was not. But, upon further questioning, he acknowledged personally being on some calls with members of Congress relating to the reconciliation package.
Greenpeace’s investigative unit, Unearthed, posed as recruitment consultants in an interview with McCoy and then leaked the conversation to UK’s Channel 4. McCoy has since left Exxon.
“I think one of the things that often gets lost in these conversations,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “is some of us have to actually live in the future that you all are setting on fire for us.”