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Oil Executives Grilled Over Industry’s Role in Climate Disinformation

At a heated hearing on Thursday, Democrats had some big questions for the chief executives of Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Shell: Would they pledge to stop lobbying against efforts to reduce emissions? And were they willing to tell their powerful trade groups to stop working against electric vehicles?

None of the executives agreed.

Instead, the leaders of the four major oil and gas companies touted their support for a transition to clean energy and said they had never engaged in campaigns to mislead the public on the role of fossil fuel emissions in global warming. All four acknowledged that the burning of their products was driving climate change, but also told lawmakers that fossil fuels are not about to disappear.

“Oil and gas will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future,” said Darren Woods, C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil. “We currently do not have the adequate alternative energy sources.”

Democrats responded with forceful language in the more than six-hour hearing. “Some of us actually have to live the future that you all are setting on fire for us,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told the executives.

Democrats had hoped to recapture the drama of the tobacco hearings of the 1990s, where lawmakers put the C.E.O.s of cigarette companies on the hot seat and each executive told the country that smoking was not addictive. There was shouting, shaming, and one demonstration involving a jar of M&Ms to make the point that the companies were investing relatively little in renewables, about 1 percent of their total capital expenditure, according to the International Energy Agency.

But the executives — Mr. Woods of Exxon Mobil, Gretchen Watkins of Shell, Michael K. Wirth of Chevron and David Lawler of BP — seemed to have learned from the tobacco hearings as well, sticking to their scripts, emphasizing their concerns over global warming and citing their internal targets for cutting emissions.

The four executives, as well as Suzanne Clark from the United States Chamber of Commerce and Mike Sommers from the industry group American Petroleum Institute, appeared on video screens, not in person, out of concerns over the pandemic.

Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform questioned the premise of the hearings, calling it a distraction from more important problems facing the nation and said the oil executives should be thanked for decades of keeping homes warm and lights blazing.

“I’ll tell you what’s frustrating, is a member of Congress telling American oil and gas companies to reduce production,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, adding that he felt those companies should instead be commended for increasing production. “God bless Chevron,” he said.

The hearing marked the first time oil executives were pressed publicly 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.

It came as President Biden urged lawmakers to vote to approve a $1.85 trillion climate and social policy package. On Monday Mr. Biden will speak to world leaders at a United Nations summit in Glasgow to make the case that the United States is cutting emissions, and to urge other nations to do more.

In Thursday’s House hearing, some of the biggest moments centered on what the oil executives would not say.

In one exchange, Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, chairwoman of the committee, asked all four if they would commit to no longer spending any money, either directly or indirectly, to oppose efforts to reduce emissions and address climate change.

“Will you take the pledge? Yes or no?” Rep. Maloney said.

In another, Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, asked the executives to tell the American Petroleum Institute and other trade groups, which the companies pay to represent their interests in Washington, to stop funding advertisements against electric vehicles and other climate policies.

“He’s sitting right next to you on the virtual screen,” Mr. Khanna said of API’s president, Mr. Sommers. “Tell them to knock it off.”

The executives didn’t commit to either of the requests.

“What I’ll commit to is continuing to be an active member of the API,” said Ms. Watkins of Shell.

API, an industry group which the four companies in Thursday’s House testimony are members of, spent almost half a million dollars to run ads opposing Democratic members of Congress. Those ads, which include ads that targeted individual members of Congress for their support of climate policies, were viewed at least 21 million times, according to Facebook data.

Mr. Woods, the C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil, faced questions about company statements over the years that cast doubt on whether fossil fuels were the main driver of climate change. He said the positions were “entirely consistent” with the scientific consensus of the time.

He also said that a 1997 statement by Lee Raymond, then Exxon’s chief executive, that “currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive” about the role of human activity in warming was “consistent with the science.” Two years earlier, the United Nations’ top climate science body had reached a consensus that global warming is occurring, and that the burning of fossil fuels was a significant cause.

Mr. Woods also said that Exxon Mobil now recognizes climate change, yet “there are no easy answers,” to solving it.

Other executives agreed. Mr. Lawler said the fact that his company has a goal by 2050 of reaching “net zero” — meaning it would no longer pump any additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from its own operations — “doesn’t mean BP is getting out of the oil and gas business.” Mr. Wirth of Chevron said, “The undeniable reality is that oil and gas remain a part of the energy equation.”

A key Republican witness was Neal Crabtree, a former worker on the Keystone XL pipeline, a construction project that President Biden canceled on Inauguration Day that would have transported crude from Canada’s oil sands to the United States. Just hours after Mr. Biden took office Mr. Crabtree lost his job, he said, making him a victim of policies that were killing fossil fuel jobs. (He said he had since found other work.)

“There seems to be no thought given to the hundreds of thousands of workers in this industry,” he said. “I’ve spent over 25 years developing the skills that I have,” he said. “I’m too far in life to be starting over.”

Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the senior Republican on the oversight committee, said Democrats were ignoring the bread-and-butter issues facing Americans like Mr. Crabtree. “It’s critical that this committee examine the pressing concerns of American citizens,” he said, pointing to inflation, high gas prices, immigration concerns and the coronavirus pandemic. He did not mention the climate.

The catalyst for the House hearings was a sting operation earlier 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.

Mr. Woods said at the time that the comments “in no way represent the company’s position, and several of the 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.

Also at the hearing Ms. Maloney released a report by House committee staff showing that despite the fact that all four oil companies said they support the Paris agreement, a 2015 international accord that aims to keep global temperatures at relatively safe levels, few have lobbied to support it. The report found that the vast majority of companies’ lobbying efforts are directed at cutting taxes.

Former President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement during his term in office. President Biden rejoined it in January.

According to the study, the four oil companies and trade groups reported 4,597 instances of lobbying Congress since that agreement was inked. Of those only eight referenced lobbying on the Paris Agreement, and none cited lobbying on legislation to cut carbon emissions and promote the goals of the agreement.

Ms. Maloney said she intends to issue subpoenas to the companies to see whether they are spending to fund campaigns that fight climate policy and if so, how much. She said that while the companies had submitted thousands of pages of documents to the committee, many of them were of little use. One company, she said, printed 1,500 pages from its own website.

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