US House Democrats to subpoena Big Oil in climate deception probe

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WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A United States House committee will subpoena major oil company executives for documents on what company scientists have said about climate change and any funds spent to mislead the public on global warming, the head of the panel said on Thursday (Oct 28).

Democrat Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced the subpoenas at the close of a hearing in which energy industry chiefs were grilled over climate.

"We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry's disinformation campaign with these subpoenas," she said.

She plans to go after documents from the companies and their trade groups about funding of "shadow groups", public relations firms and social media companies.

The hearing was the first time members of Congress concerned about climate change questioned executives of top oil majors and trade groups under oath.

Lawmakers said they had received some documents but not enough, and the committee expects its probe to last a year.

Appearing virtually before the panel were chief executives Darren Woods of ExxonMobil, Gretchen Watkins of Shell Oil, David Lawler of BP America and Mike Wirth of Chevron.

The panel also heard from officials at BP America and the heads of the American Petroleum Institute (API) and Chamber of Commerce.

Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat, told Reuters this week that the panel got some documents from former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy, who was secretly recorded by environmental group Greenpeace as saying the company's support of a carbon tax was a ruse, since the company believed the idea would never become law.

The six-hour hearing focused on what Democrats called Big Oil's "disinformation campaign" to block climate action.

It covered the period from the 1970s, when companies ignored their own research on climate risks of fossil fuels, to current advertising campaigns aimed at brandishing their green image.

Representative Khanna said that while oil companies have started to improve their talking points, they have undermined these public statements by supporting lobbying groups that deny climate science or fight proposals to fight climate change.

"I don't believe that you purposely want to be out there spreading climate misinformation but you're out there funding these groups," he said.

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The energy executives said more time is needed for a transition to cleaner energy.

None of them said yes when Mr Khanna asked if they would commit to an independent audit to verify that none of their funds were going to groups that deny climate science, or whether they would commit to pulling their memberships from API if the oil lobby group keeps fighting policies such as electric vehicle credits and methane fees.

Oil executives and trade group officials at the hearing used the platform to try to distance themselves from previous efforts to dismiss climate science, saying their policies evolved as the science became more clear.

Exxon chief Woods said his company had "responded accordingly" when the "scientific community's understanding of climate change developed", and maintained that he believes oil and gas will still be needed to meet growing global energy demand.

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He and Chevron CEO Wirth played up oil and gas as essential for operation of hospitals, schools and offices.

BP America's Mr Lawler and Shell's Ms Watkins talked about their recognition that climate change was a problem in the 1990s, and about their current efforts to adapt their business models to add more renewable energy and lower emissions.

'Partisan theatre'

Representative James Comer, the panel's top Republican, did not mention climate change in his opening remarks and said the panel should be addressing inflation and high energy prices, which he linked to Biden administration policies.

"The purpose of this hearing is clear: to deliver partisan theatre for prime-time news," he said.

The lone Republican witness, Neal Crabtree, a welder who lost his job after Mr Biden cancelled the Keystone XL oil pipeline, said his main crisis was not climate change, but paying for his mortgage and food for his family.

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Democrats said Big Oil's opposition to strong climate action leaves future generations at risk.

"One thing that often gets lost in these conversations is some of us have to actually live in the future that you all are setting on fire for us," Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 32, told the executives, all older than 50.

The United Nations this summer released a report saying immediate and large-scale action is needed to reduce emissions or the average global temperature is likely to reach or cross the 1.5-deg C warming threshold within 20 years.

The committee contrasted the industry's advertising claims of support for the 2015 Paris climate agreement with the scant funding they have given.

It released an analysis that Exxon's lobbying disclosures since 2015 showed only one instance of lobbying on the Paris Agreement, and none on any of the 28 Bills related to the pact.

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"Only 0.06 per cent of Exxon's 1,543 total instances of legislative lobbying since 2015 has been devoted to the Paris Agreement or related legislation," the analysis said.

Mr Woods emphasised Exxon's investments in carbon capture, a technology to capture emissions for burial underground or to pump them into ageing oilfields to squeeze out more crude.

On the requested documents, Chevron said the company has been working to collect and produce them.

Exxon said it has produced nearly 130,000 pages of documents, including internal e-mails.

API said has been working with the committee "consistent with our right to associate and engage in free speech".

The other companies and the Chamber did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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