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What the oil industry still won’t tell us

House Democrats grilled Big Oil executives about decades of disinformation. Here are five unanswered questions.

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Darren Woods testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on October 28, 2021, in Washington, DC. The committee is investigating allegations that oil giants misled the public about the role of fossil fuels in climate change.
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Four executives from Big Oil — “the richest, most powerful industry in human history,” according to environmentalist Bill McKibben — testified before Congress on Thursday at a hearing meant to reveal how the oil business has undermined government action on climate change.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform questioned the CEOs of ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell, alongside the presidents of two powerful lobbying groups, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the US Chamber of Commerce. The Democratic lawmakers who control the committee interrogated the executives about how their institutions misled the public and funded misinformation campaigns that questioned the severity of climate change.

But the executives, testifying virtually, were evasive. “As science has evolved and developed, our understanding has evolved and developed,” said ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, answering a question about why his company rejected climate science throughout the 2000s, when scientists already agreed that global warming was an urgent threat. Republican lawmakers argued the hearing was a farce, a distraction from other issues, and a veiled attempt to ban oil production.

Big Oil’s big secrets about its climate change activities may begin to unravel in any paperwork committee staff can get their hands on. For 40 years, the oil industry has worked to delay and obstruct policies that would hurt the profitability of its products, even when their own scientists warned that burning fossil fuels would cause climate change. Thousands of pages of documents in the public record — obtained through lawsuits, leaks, and undercover videos — patch together a portrait of how the oil industry has fostered climate change denial.

The Oversight committee requested additional documents dating back to 2015, but so far witnesses “have failed to adequately comply with the Committee’s request,” according to a statement by Democratic lawmakers. When reached for comment, an API spokesperson countered that the group has been actively working to comply “and has already produced thousands of pages responsive to their request.”

After nearly five hours of questioning, House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) closed the hearing by announcing she would issue subpoenas for the documents the committee did not receive, saying it had received only financial reports, social media posts, and press releases that were already publicly available. Maloney called for detailed funding information, board memos, and senior executive communications to help the committee “understand their payments to shadow groups and to over 150 public relations companies and advertisements on social media, payments that today’s witnesses seem intent on continuing.”

“I do not take this step lightly,” Maloney added, saying that the committee’s goal is to “get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas we will.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on October 28, 2021.
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Climate activists hope that this moment could be an inflection point for accountability in the oil industry, similar to when Congress investigated other industries that have profited from misleading the public, including tobacco, asbestos, and lead companies. “There’s ongoing pressure to get these companies to fess up in one way or the other, or pay up,” said Kert Davies, founder and director of the advocacy research group Climate Investigations Center, who has collected his own database of oil documents. “How and when that comes, and how much they can do to blunt that, is the drama that’s playing out this week.”

What secrets are oil companies still keeping from the public? There are at least five key areas Congress can dig into to discover the truth about Big Oil’s activities on climate change. The documents Democrats are after could also paint a fuller, more recent picture of the oil industry’s own climate change goals. Some purport to aim for net-zero emissions in the coming decades, but they could turn out to be hot air.

How much has the oil industry spent trying to undermine climate legislation?

In the words of one ExxonMobil lobbyist, the company has worked with “shadow groups” against early efforts to regulate the fossil fuel industry.

In June, the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace published a video of then-lobbyist Keith McCoy speaking on what he thought was a recruiting call. “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes,” McCoy said. “Did we hide our science? Absolutely not. Did we join some of these ‘shadow groups’ to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing illegal about that. You know, we were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders.” McCoy no longer works for ExxonMobil.

Similarly candid admissions about oil’s attitude toward climate action may lurk in their internal records.

Oil companies are finally promising to change, but how much of their climate commitments are just greenwashing?

According to McCoy, the ExxonMobil lobbyist in Greenpeace’s exposé, the company had also been feigning support for a carbon tax, a policy that would increase the cost of fossil fuels to reduce demand.

“Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans, and the cynical side of me says, yeah, we kind of know that. But it gives us a talking point that we can say, ‘Well, what is ExxonMobil for? Well, we’re for a carbon tax,’” McCoy said.

There are other ways oil companies have inflated their records on climate, a tactic known as greenwashing. As of December 2019, the world’s five biggest oil companies had spent a combined $3.6 billion in advertising over the previous 30 years. One of Exxon’s recent marketing pushes has been in promoting its investments in research for using algae for car fuel. Someone who watches these ads might assume Exxon spends a significant portion of its budget on algae, when it accounted for 0.2 percent of its refining capacity.

Despite the rhetoric, the oil industry seems likely to stay true to its core products. As BP America CEO David Lawler said in the hearing, “This doesn’t mean BP is getting out of the oil and gas business.”

Who is calling the shots for the politicians and groups that deny climate change?

Astroturfing is the “practice of creating an illusion of public support for a cause,” according to the environmental news outlet Grist. Instead of expressing skepticism of climate science or promoting controversial policies directly, oil companies and their allies have spent big sums on other organizations that promote its priorities.

One example is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has received more than $1.7 million from Exxon and its affiliates before the company left the council in 2018. ALEC has helped reverse renewable portfolio standards and plastic bag bans by pushing model legislation in states. Between 1998 and 2014, Exxon also led corporate donors in giving almost $31 million to special interest groups that promote climate change denial.

This is only a small glimpse into the grants Big Oil has given to third-party groups. The public doesn’t yet know what, exactly, the grants were for.

How much current polarization on climate change can be traced back to early disinformation campaigns by the industry?

In 2015, the LA Times and Inside Climate News published separate investigations showing that scientists in the oil industry had urged companies to consider how its products were fueling global warming via internal memos dating all the way back to the 1960s. Instead of heeding these calls, Exxon worked with other top oil companies to form a coalition that would sink a binding global climate agreement in 1998, according to documents.

From the LA Times:

How did one of the world’s largest oil companies, a leader in climate research, become one of its biggest public skeptics?

The answer, gleaned from a trove of archived company documents and the recollections of former employees, is that Exxon, now known as Exxon Mobil, feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome policies.

What are the end goals of Big Oil’s enormous marketing push?

One of the mysteries of the oil industry is the type of work it contracts out to consulting and public relations groups, which have helped Big Oil craft a benevolent public image.

Davies, of the Climate Investigations Center, wonders what the oil industry deems a PR “success.” “Who’s measuring the success of these ads? You’re spending millions of dollars on these ads, how do you measure the win?” he added.

Shedding light on the PR world’s activities could pressure the biggest firms to consider severing their ties with oil giants.

The efforts of oil companies to market themselves also loom large in a growing number of lawsuits alleging malfeasance. Rep. Ro Khanna said Thursday’s hearing is likely just the first part of a series getting to the bottom of oil industry campaigns, with a second focused on the PR industry’s role working with oil companies.

“We have a huge amount of documentation going back 40 years,” said Harvard history of science professor Naomi Oreskes ahead of the hearing, during a call with the progressive group Our Revolution.

On Thursday, the company executives claimed their position reflects the overwhelming scientific consensus that fossil fuels cause climate change. But the industry has not focused on climate-friendly policy in its lobbying.

The four oil companies present at the hearing, along with API, have spent nearly $453 million combined to lobby the federal government in the past decade, according to an analysis released Thursday by Democrats on the House Oversight committee. The analysis suggests the industry has been far more concerned with protecting tax breaks for fossil fuels than it has protecting the planet.

For example, the industry has publicly said it supports the Paris climate agreement, but in the halls of Congress, it lobbied on the matter only eight times out of 4,597 lobbying examples in the analysis. The industry devoted more than half its time lobbying on tax-related issues.

“I don’t think we really need more research ... on what these companies have done, and the way they have misrepresented the truth, the facts, and continue to propagate dangerous practices,” Oreskes said on the Our Revolution call. But she thinks the hearing can help the public realize this. “We’ve been lied to ... we have work to do to really get that message out.”

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