How Big Oil Has Misled the Public on Climate Change

The House oversight hearings on October 28, 2021 called upon six major fossil fuel companies and trade associations to attest to their part in climate change — and whether they have misled the public about the reality of the crisis. California representative Ro Khanna, who helped lead this historic hearing, joins Amanpour and Company to speak about the disconnect between what these companies say and what they do — and don’t do.

TRANSCRIPT

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now, to the responsibility of corporations. Last Thursday’s House oversight hearings in Washington included six major fossil fuel companies and trade associations testifying to their part in climate change and whether they have misled the public about the reality of the climate crisis. California representative, Ro Khanna, helped lead this historic hearing and here he is talking with our Hari Sreenivasan about the disconnect between what these companies say and what they do or don’t do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Christine, thanks. Congressman Ro Khanna, thanks for joining us. I want to ask, what was your interest in having the hearings in the first place with the heads of all of the fossil fuel companies and the head of the American Petroleum Institute, which is kind of a lobbying group for all those companies?

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): The big oil executives have never testified under oath to the United States Congress to explain their role in climate disinformation. There were two things we wanted to get at. First, what did they do in terms of misleading the American public and down playing climate change? And second, what are they continuing to do if funding third-party groups to lobby against climate legislation and to spread climate disinformation? And we had some admissions, as well as, unfortunately, some denials that may not hold up to be true.

SREENIVASAN: You know, when you launched these investigations, I want to read back something that you said. You said, these companies and their allies in the fossil fuel industry have worked to prevent serious action on global warming by generating doubt about documented gangers of fossil fuels and misrepresenting the scale of their efforts to develop alternative energy technologies. What do you see is the most dangerous examples of these behaviors?

KHANNA: In 2002, the Exxon CEO says, I don’t think there’s any scientific consensus between the link of burning fossil fuels and climate change. And Exxon has a report from 1978 that says there’s scientific certainly that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. So, the CEO is out there in the early 2000s purposely casting doubt, which gives there a reason to be inaction. And so, there’s still fossil fuel subsidies, there’s not enough investment in alternative energy. There’s — has a real cost. Had we started in the ’70s and ’80s developing alternative energy, the world would be in a better place. Frankly, these companies could have been in a better place. They could have started transitioning then. They purposely chose not to do that and to doubt the science. And they continue now to green wash. I mean, they talked about algae. They probably spent a significant amount on the algae advertising. But they have a less than 0.2 percent of actually company spend on clean technology. They are still using — peddling this false carbon and capture, even though the carbon they’re capturing from the technology is being used for further oil extraction. So, there are a lot of basically misrepresentations that need to be addressed and exposed and hopefully, the hearing is a start to that.

SREENIVASAN: Do you see a parallel between big follows fuel and big tobacco? It seems like they are playing from a similar playbook. And I wonder if — does that mean that the logical end is similar? Is there some grand settlement where companies contribute to the equivalent of a climate fund?

KHANNA: I do see a parallel. But big oil is much savvier now. They — you know, they didn’t make the same gross mistakes as big tobacco. They’re trying to at least tout the lines about climate. And so, my view is that two things will happen, I do think they’re going to have some accountability for the past and make some amends for the damage that they’ve done and the litigation will run its course and — as well as investigations. But the biggest thing is that there’s going to have to be some commitment to change. And you’re seeing some change with the European companies, and that’s because of the European courts and European regulation. The question is, whether the American companies will change it, whether Congress will have it in as to regulate the requirement of that change. I mean, we can’t get up here and say we’re for the Paris Accords and then, ignore all of the recommendations of how to comply with the Paris Accords.

SREENIVASAN: What were the admission that you got from the executives?

KHANNA: Well, one, they may not seem like a big deal but they all acknowledge that climate change is happening. They all acknowledge that climate change is human-caused. They all acknowledge that burning fossil fuels cause climate change.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY (D-NY): Mr. Woods, CEO of Exxon, do you agree that climate change is real?

DARREN WOOD, CEO, EXXON: Yes.

MALONEY: Thank you. Mr. Lawler, CEO of bp America, do you agree that climate change is caused by human activities

DAVID LAWLER, CEO, BP AMERICA: Yes.

MALONEY: Mr. Wirth, CEO of Chevron, do you agree that burning fossil fuels is a significant cause of climate change?

MICHAEL WIRTH, CEO, CHEVRON: Chairwoman, we’ve been clear on where we stand and we accept the current scientific consensus that the use of follows fuels contributes to climate change.

KHANNA: These are statements that past CEOs of oil companies have been unwilling to make. They also acknowledge the falsity of some past statements where they were belligerent is that they said that the false statements were in the context of the science of the time. I don’t think that will hold up. They also refused to condemn third-party groups that were lobbying against electric vehicles, lobbying against the methane tax, lobbying against policies that they themselves support.

SREENIVASAN: You know, you were pressing the executives on their support of these third-party groups, and none of them took the opportunity to say that, we will not support these groups in the future.

KHANNA: Here’s what’s so frustrating, because I actually think — I don’t think — I really don’t think they’re as bad as the CEOs of the past. I don’t. I think you have tough jobs. You got there. You got a horrible record on stuff. You’re figuring out how you don’t get into litigation, trouble, while really trying to tell the truth. It’s a tough act. I mean, I don’t envy you. And I don’t believe you purposely wanted to be out there spreading climate disinformation. But you’re funding these groups and they’re really having an impact. You know, they’re spending millions of dollars in Congress to kill electric vehicles and they’re spending millions of dollars against the methane gas. And you could do something here. You can tell them to knock it off for the sake of the planet. You can end it. You could end that lobbying. Would any of you take the opportunity and look at API and say stop it? Any of you?

KHANNA: What I was asking wasn’t that difficult. I mean, Total, the French company, for example, has said that they’re not going to participate in American Petroleum Institute because of some of American petroleum institute’s climate denialism and policy positions. You had these CEOs saying, says, we don’t agree with what American Petroleum Institute is doing, but they weren’t willing to tell them to stop, they weren’t willing to publicly embarrass them. And so, you have this disconnect between what these companies are saying to look good, to say they’re sustainable and yet, they’re funding these groups that are going exactly the opposite. And, Hari, it’s relevant because right now, as we speak, we’re trying to get a methane tax in the president’s bill and API is spending half a million dollars lobbying it against it. We’re trying to get electric vehicle tax credits in the bill, API is spending millions of dollars against it. And these oil CEOs are basically saying, it’s OK. Don’t stop.

SREENIVASAN: There’s an exchange that I want to pull up here. This is with Congressman Sarbanes talking exactly about what the fossil fuel companies say, for example, on their website versus what they do. Let’s take a look.

REP. JOHN SARBANES (D-MD): Your company claims that the Paris Agreement is among your highest priorities. The first sentence of Chevron’s climate policy page says, “Chevron supports the Paris Agreement.” I notice that you also touted Chevron’s support for the Paris Agreement if your written testimony to the committee. Since the start of negotiations on the Paris Agreement in 2015, Chevron has reported 986 total instances of federal lobbying. Mr. Wirth, do you know how many times Chevron reported lobbying on the Paris Agreement?

WIRTH: Congressman, that is information that I don’t have in front of me. But it’s —

SARBANES: OK. Well, let me tell you what it is. Not once, not a single time, not one of those 986 instances of lobbying mentions the Paris Agreement. Now, when I compare that to an issue that we know your company really cares about, corporate tax breaks. Mr. Wirth, do you know how many lobbying reports your company filed that reported lobbying on tax issues?

WIRTH: Congressman, I don’t have that in front of me.

SARBANES: 144, that’s the answer.

SREENIVASAN: Right now, there doesn’t seem to be any disincentive for them to stop this behavior. What force to bear can you bring on companies from testimony like this that says, all right, you have to stop funding these third-party companies, you have to become — you know, you have to start spending money like you say your priorities are?

KHANNA: Well, Hari, it’s taken almost 40 years to get them in front of Congress and to testify under oath. I mean, that was a huge deal just to have them there. And then, Chairwoman Maloney and I announced we’re going to subpoena for further documents, which we rarely do as a committee. We didn’t find them responsive enough. So, this investigation is going to continue and we will have an investigation and a report and then, some of these agency actions may begin. But it’s going to be a long process. I mean, this has been going on for decades of misinformation and we’re just starting to hold them accountable. I don’t want to underestimate how hard this is going to be with the battalion of their lawyers. But we are committed to doing it and it’s going to be a multiyear process to bring this kind of change.

SREENIVASAN: You know, one of the things that we noticed over the six hours yesterday is that the other side of the aisle, the Republicans consistently make this, in a way, about jobs, American jobs going away. They even had a person who was personally affected. He was a welder, I think, who lost his job after the end of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. But I want to play a clip from Representative Jim Jordan. And he makes this about American consumers. Let’s take a listen.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): I’ll tell you what’s frustrating, is a member of Congress telling American oil and gas companies to reduce production at the same time the president of the United States is begging OPEC to increase production. That may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. But that’s the scenario we’re in. God bless Chevron for saying they’re going to increase production. What does the gentleman want? $8 gasoline? $10 gasoline for the very families that we all represent? This is craziness what they’re talking about. I yield back to the gentleman. Thank you for yielding me 30 seconds.

SREENIVASAN: So, what is structurally false about that argument? What he’s saying and what so many members of his party are saying is that this is going to cripple portions of the economy that depend on keeping these Americans employed?

KHANNA: Here’s what’s false, Hari. First of all, let’s start with the science. It’s not my view or a Congressional view. The U.N. view, the Paris Accord view, the IEA view says, we have to decrease oil production 3 percent to 4 percent every year if we have any hope of keeping temperatures rising less than 2 degrees. Not just less than 1.5 degrees. So, Shell takes that seriously. They’re decreasing 1 percent to 2 percent. Bp is reducing 40 percent. I’m glad, actually, Representative Jordan got Chevron to admit that they’re increasing production because words was dancing around that. But the reality is Exxon and Chevron are increasing production. Now, you can decrease production by 3 percent or 4 percent a year and increase renewable energy, increase electric vehicles, increase cafe standards and bring the price of gas down. Because you’re going to increase the demand for gas and that is the answer that Democrats have and the power that you bring the price of gas down. Temporarily, if the president has to tap the strategic petroleum reserve or get OPEC to increase production right now for immediate relief, that doesn’t mean we can’t hit the yearly goals of reducing oil production. But obviously, he’s trying to obfuscate these issues, scare people. The real solution, though, is to decrease the demand for gas and to increase renewables.

SREENIVASAN: I want to play you two separate clips and kind of — and I’ll talk a little bit in between and then, we’ll ask you a question. The first one I want to play is an exchange between Representative Grothman and the head of the American Petroleum Institute. And the Representative Grothman had essentially started by asking him about how much cleaner the skies are today than they were decades ago and we’re going to pick up in the middle of the answer and let’s take a look here.

MIKE SOMMERS, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE: Additionally, the emissions that have come from the electricity sector are at their lowest level since 1978. And that is because of the fuel switch that has gone on from coal to natural gas —

REP. GLENN GROTHMAN, (R-OH): Holy cow. Just a second here. You mean despite the fact the population of this country has gone through the roof and the amount of economic activity has gone through the roof we have less pollutants coming from the energy sector than 40-plus years ago?

SOMMERS: Congressman, in fact, obviously, the United States population has continued to increase and world population has expected —

SREENIVASAN: You know, what’s strange about that to me is it seemed like the entire exchange was scripted. That the head of the API at times was reading a response and then, I want to play a second clip here and then, I’ll ask you about both of them. And this is with Representative Porter from California and this is her kind of talking a little bit about the amount of available permitted land that already exists for oil and gas exploration versus opening up new lands. So, let’s take a look at that clip too.

REP. KATIE PORTER (D-CA): If each grain of rice were one acre, that would be 479 pounds of rice. The American Petroleum Institute even opposed pausing (ph) more leasing on our lands. They even sued to stop it. Because apparently, this acreage wasn’t enough.

SREENIVASAN: Now, I’m a guy who appreciates props, a good prop, a good analogy to help people understand. But I want to ask, between those two kinds of examples, one kind of the scripting of things or pre-scripting on one side and then, really the props on the other, are we getting to a place where this is a little bit more just theater and that we’re not spending the time doing exactly what it was that you wanted to do which was hold the fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in disinformation?

KHANNA: You know, Hari, obviously, Representative Porter is very skilled interviewer and her clips often go viral. And it’s not unusual that members of Congress, staff sometimes give advance questions to a sympathetic witness or that takes place. But here’s the thing, if you look at the big tobacco hearings the night that they took place, the nightly news carried them, they carried clips. They actually didn’t carry the clip that became most relevant. It was by Senator Ron Wyden, who isn’t the flashiest guy. He was in the House at the time. And he asked them, is nicotine addictive, and they all said no. And the media didn’t even cover that, really, at the time it took place. It was only months later that documents came out and showed that that statement was a lie under oath and that’s what turned sentiment. So, it may be that one of the less flashy questions in that hearing is actually what is most consequential as we get more documents, as the investigation continues. It could be something like what Sarbanes asked. And it may not be right now what we think is the flashiest moment than long-term actually is the most substantive. I’m confident over the years that the investigation goes on, what will be most substantive are two questions, did these executives lie? And, two, what is the evidence of the — their support for third-party groups with misinformation?

SREENIVASAN: How long do you think this investigation lasts? I mean, is something that is dependent on how the — who controls the House after the midterms?

KHANNA: Sure, it is. I mean, we saw that in the dichotomy of the questions yesterday. But I think within a year, which is well before the next midterms, we can get a lot established. And there have been people waiting decades to finally understand what these executives were going to say under oath. This is going to advance a lot of their research. It’s going to advance the climate movement. We’re going to have a very detailed report with new documents that, I think, will help inform the public and this climate community about what these oil companies have been doing.

SREENIVASAN: Congressman Ro Khanna, thanks so much for joining us.

KHANNA: Hari, thanks for the in-depth to look at this.