Rep. Ro Khanna on next week’s “historic” Big Oil hearing
We spoke with the Congressman about the Oct. 28 House Oversight hearing that will put fossil fuel executives in the hot seat over their companies’ role in spreading climate disinformation.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Next week, Big Oil’s Slippery Six — a.k.a. the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP America, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — will face questions before the House Oversight and Reform Committee about their historic and ongoing campaigns to spread climate disinformation. It’s set to be a major and fortuitously timed showdown, as the industry is lobbying hard to kill crucial climate provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
One of the leaders of this effort to hold the Slippery Six accountable is Representative Ro Khanna, chairman of the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, and he was gracious enough to talk to ExxonKnews about his plans and expectations for the hearing. Without further ado, our interview is below:
You’ve said we can’t solve the climate crisis without solving the climate disinformation crisis. What role do you see Big Oil’s climate disinformation playing in perpetuating the climate crisis, and why is it so important for Congress to expose it?
It’s playing a big role in preventing us from getting the climate legislation we need. They have been funneling money to PR agencies to downplay the devastating impact of climate change. They’ve been saying it’s a risk but not actually that it’s happening. They have been overhyping carbon capture and storage as a solution when we know that carbon capture and storage hasn’t worked, that it is very expensive. They have been touting that they are doing all of these things that are green, yet they haven’t been making the investments to actually back up what they’re saying. And they’ve got lobbyists swarming the Hill as well as PR agencies and shadow groups to try to kill legislation. So we need to expose all of this — we need to hold them accountable so that we can actually get climate legislation.
This summer, we all saw the tape of former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy bragging about the company’s use of “shadow groups” and other deception to block climate action. Since then, the House Oversight committee has been in contact with McCoy, and you said he’s been complying with committee requests. How important was that tape of McCoy to this investigation, and can you share anything about what the committee has learned from him since?
It was one of the catalysts, Emily, but it’s just one data point. We have so much evidence of the duplicity of these companies where they’re saying one thing to the public, saying one thing to their shareholders, and yet directly funding dark [money] groups that are engaging in climate disinformation. So McCoy was one compelling testimony where he said “Look, I’m out there killing climate legislation,” but what we’ve discovered in our investigation is that there’s systemic efforts at doing that and all of that is going to come out over the course of this year.
You and Committee Chair Maloney are calling on six individual fossil fuel executives to testify. You told Maxine Joselow at the Washington Post that they will all be at the hearing but several of the companies have still been slippery in their answers to press outlets about who specifically they’ll send. What does it say about these CEOs and companies that they won’t just publicly commit to showing up?
They need to commit — they’ve committed to us, and I expect them to be there. The CEOs will be there, and that is our expectation. They made that representation to our committee. I can’t imagine that they would defy the committee at this point.
As Build Back Better moves through Congress, we’ve seen the oil and gas industry once again work hard to gut a host of climate provisions, even as they maintain that they are part of the solution. How do you see the hearing, and perhaps more importantly, the investigation, helping to pass the kind of policies we need to avoid the worst climate consequences?
Once we expose the actions of these Big Oil companies, the first thing we ought to do is stop the subsidies to oil and gas companies. We ought not to have taxpayer dollars actively subsidizing them. And then we need to pass the standards to get to 50% reduction, and we need to have disclosure laws so that you can’t engage in the kind of disinformation that contradicts your mission of your own company. So those are the concrete actions that we will be taking after the hearing.
There are growing efforts to hold these companies accountable for their role in the climate crisis, including lawsuits from more than two dozen states and municipalities. What role are you hoping this hearing and the subsequent investigation plays in holding Big Oil accountable for their deception?
We’re going to finally get them under oath to answer questions. Do they agree that there was climate disinformation in the past? Do they accept responsibility for that? Have they committed to stopping the deception now? Are they monitoring the funding to third party groups, and are they aware of the disinformation campaign that PR agencies and other groups are undertaking? All of that will be asked, and they’re going to have to provide answers under oath. And that information as well as the documents I think will be very helpful to those who are doing research in this area.
In addition to the heads of four Big Oil companies — Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP America — the Slippery Six also include the heads of two trade associations, the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Why did you decide to include these industry groups as part of the hearing, and why is it important for them to face questions too?
The reason is that the Big Oil companies have become more sophisticated over the years. In the past they directly took out advertisements in the New York Times, they directly funded think tanks to put out studies that minimize the risk of climate change. That is no longer their strategy — they don’t do things directly. They either hire PR agencies, or they fund third party groups that hire PR agencies to put out the disinformation. So they’re one or two or sometimes three steps removed. So we wanted to bring in API and the Chamber which have directly contracted with some of these agencies that have put out disinformation and put them in the same room with the oil executives to stop this subterfuge where you have the funding through third parties of disinformation and to expose, really, the scheme.
Is there anything else that you think my readers should know before the hearing?
I appreciate your readers’ activism, and we look forward to hearing any input as far as questions we should be asking on October 28th. It’s going to be a historic hearing, and we hope that it will mark a turning point in this country where Big Oil will finally be held accountable, and the disinformation campaigns will finally stop.