Oil giants deny spreading climate disinformation as they face Dem heat on Capitol Hill

The leaders of major oil and gas companies testified at a tough hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill about their companies' roles in greenhouse gas emissions, the acceleration of climate change and allegations of past deception and misinformation. The testimony comes days before a global climate summit is set to begin. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Days before a global climate summit is set to begin, the leaders of major oil and gas companies testified today at a tough public hearing on Capitol Hill about their companies' roles in greenhouse gas emissions, the acceleration of climate change, and allegations of past deception and misinformation.

    William Brangham has our report.

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY):

    For far too long, big oil has escaped accountability for its central role in bringing our planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe. That ends today.

  • William Brangham:

    Executives from Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP America, some of the biggest players in the oil and gas industry, faced a grilling on Capitol Hill today.

  • Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA):

    I don't believe you purposely wanted to be out there spreading climate disinformation, but you're funding these groups.

  • William Brangham:

    The companies are accused of funding and waging a decades-long disinformation campaign to mislead the public on the connections between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change.

    The executives all denied the charge, and acknowledged some of the reality of climate change.

  • Here’s Chevron CEO Michael Wirth:

  • Michael Wirth, CEO, Chevron:

    We accept the scientific consensus. Climate change is real and the use of fossil fuels contributes to it.

    While our views on climate change have developed over time, any suggestion that Chevron has engaged in an effort to spread disinformation and mislead the public on these complex issues is simply wrong.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the triggers for today's hearing was this video. Earlier this year, Greenpeace U.K. secretly recorded an Exxon lobbyist describing the oil giant's efforts to suppress scientific findings on climate change.

  • Keith McCoy, Former ExxonMobil Lobbyist:

    Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. 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 — there's nothing illegal about that.

  • William Brangham:

    That lobbyist, Keith McCoy, also claimed Exxon's support of a carbon tax was essentially a ruse.

  • Keith McCoy:

    Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans. And the cynical side of me says, yes, 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.

  • William Brangham:

    Exxon has said McCoy's statements were not reflective of the company.

    Democrats pressed the executives, claiming the companies knew for decades about the potential threat posed by climate change. Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney of New York zeroed in on a 1981 Exxon memo.

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney:

    A top Exxon scientist wrote that it was distinctly possible that climate change would — quote — "produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic, at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth's population."

    Do you believe that it was ethical for Exxon to run a New York Times advertisement that downplayed, downplayed the risk?

  • Darren Woods, CEO, ExxonMobil:

    : If you look at the full context of the memos that you're referencing, the messaging that came across in that full — those full memos, and is very consistent with what the general consensus of the scientific community was and our advertorial that you mentioned again concluded that there's enough knowledge to know that we should be taking action.

  • William Brangham:

    Republicans on the committee denounced today's hearing, saying it was nothing but political spectacle.

  • Rep. James Comer (R-KY):

    The purpose of this hearing is clear, to deliver partisan theater for prime-time news. This hearing is simply a distraction from the crises that the Biden administration's policies have caused for the American people.

  • William Brangham:

    They also touted the companies' progress on reducing emissions and accused Democrats of disparaging the U.S. energy industry.

  • Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA):

    They have used innovation to clean up their industry on their own. It's abhorrent that my colleagues across the aisle have called a so-called hearing today to demonize American industry whose products make modern life possible.

  • William Brangham:

    Republicans also brought as a witness a welder who was laid off after President Biden canceled the Keystone XL Pipeline.

  • Neil Crabtree, Former Keystone XL Pipeline Worker:

    I may have been the first casualty of the Build Back Better plan.

  • William Brangham:

    Progressive Democrats blasted the energy executives, alleging they were sacrificing a livable future for present-day profits.

  • Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI):

    You can poison the planet to make money, but we're going to defend the planet so we can live.

  • William Brangham:

    Other Democrats wanted executives on record regarding the scale of the problem.

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney:

    Do you agree that it's an existential threat, yes or no?

  • Gretchen Watkins, President, Shell Oil Company:

    I agree that…

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney:

    Yes.

    Yes or no?

  • Gretchen Watkins:

    I agree that this is a defining challenge for our generation, absolutely.

  • William Brangham:

    Public opinion has been on the side of addressing climate change.

    A recent poll by the Associated Press found that 55 percent of Americans want Congress to move the country away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. In recent years, the energy industry has sponsored an ad campaign to cast itself as environmentally friendly and supportive of cleaner renewable energy.

    But behind the scenes, they continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying in Washington, D.C., often to block action on climate change. The vast majority of that money goes to Republicans.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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