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Oct. 30, 2021, 12:56 p.m. EDT

Democrats compare oil companies’ climate change response to tobacco-cancer denial

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Rachel Koning Beals

Democrats grilled the executives of oil majors ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and others for campaigns the lawmakers charged have misled the public on the dangerous effects of climate change in ways that mimic historic efforts by cigarette makers to disguise health concerns.

Republicans at the same committee meeting Tuesday stressed their view that withholding U.S.-generated energy sources, including natural gas NG00 , will only cut U.S. jobs, risk U.S. security because of tenuous relationships with gas-giant Russia and certain Middle East governments, and drive up gasoline and home-heating costs at a time when global markets are experiencing a crisis of energy supply — all while demand is increasing. The GOP members also used the hearing to repeat calls for tougher emissions expectations for China and India, which along with the U.S., round out the top three global polluters.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, the Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment, told the oil executives that while the companies now acknowledge that the burning of fossil fuels drives climate change, have made emissions-reduction pledges and diversified their products to include renewables, such actions stand in contrast to their high lobbying expenses for efforts to push for new drilling and more. And, the Democrats charged, energy companies aren’t as open with the public as they should be.

“Rather than admitting the truth about their product, the [tobacco] executives lied. This was a watershed moment in the public’s understanding of Big Tobacco,” said Mahoney. “I hope that today’s hearing represents a turning point for Big Oil. I hope that today the witnesses will finally own up to the industry’s central role in this crisis and become part of the change we need.”

Watch the hearing .

The committee’s majority drew on decades-old reports containing red flags on global warming from scientists inside the oil companies. They pointed to old advertisements from the oil industry questioning the impact of climate change, as well as early 2000s statements undermining the science from one former Exxon /zigman2/quotes/204455864/composite XOM +2.86% executive, and they tapped into a recent incident from earlier this year, in which an Exxon lobbyist was unknowingly taped saying that the company only used “talking points” on greener efforts to pacify lawmakers and the public. Exxon has disavowed the lobbyist’s remarks .

Public policy and environmental groups noted the significance of bringing the oil leaders, as well as the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, under oath about charges of misleading the public as President Biden and other global leaders ready to converge on Glasgow for an ambitious climate summit and as Biden on Thursday reframed his Build Back Better initiative to include $555 billion for climate programs that include renewable tax incentives, a reduced amount from initial efforts.

During a question-and-answer period, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat from New York, prompted ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods to say he personally participated in calls with lawmakers on the Democrats’ spending plan.

“I have,” Woods replied. But he said political donations were not discussed during his calls. 

Read: ‘Multiple pathways to net-zero emissions with or without Congress,’ says a top Biden climate official

History repeating?

“Twenty-seven years ago,  similar hearings  featuring tobacco industry executives led to  litigation by 52 U.S. states and territories and industry restitution to the public . The stakes this time are at least as high: trillions of dollars in predicted loss and destruction from climate change. Big Oil is due its Big Tobacco moment,” Patti Lynn, the executive director of nonprofit Corporate Accountability and Geoffrey Supran, a research fellow in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and director of climate accountability communication for the Climate Social Science Network, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times .

Read : Cigarette sales increased in 2020 for the first time in 20 years

In addition to Exxon and Chevron Corp. CVX , witnesses included the U.S. heads of European energy concerns BP Plc UK:BP BP and Royal Dutch Shell RDS.A RDS.B .

Mahoney said in a statement that the fossil fuel industry has had  scientific evidence  about the dangers of climate change since at least 1977.  “Yet for decades, the industry spread  denial  and  doubt  about the harm of its products—undermining the science and preventing meaningful action on climate change even as the global climate crisis became  increasingly dire , and its  deadly impact  on Americans increased,” she said.

At least one historian has stressed that earlier action could have reduced the scramble to slow climate change now.

“Back in 1979,  Exxon had privately studied options  for avoiding global warming. It found that with immediate action, if the industry moved away from fossil fuels and instead focused on renewable energy, fossil fuel pollution could start to decline in the 1990s and a major climate crisis could be avoided,” said Benjamin Franta, a history Ph. D student at Stanford University, in a paper on The Conversation .

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