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Will Congress subpoena Big Oil?
Oil executives have avoided testifying — but may not be able to for long.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Big Oil’s no good, very bad week proved that the industry’s best efforts can’t stop the growing push to hold them accountable for their role in the climate crisis.
On Wednesday, a court in the Netherlands ordered Royal Dutch Shell to slash its emissions by 45 percent by 2030 — the first time ever that a court anywhere has ruled that a Big Oil company is liable for climate change. Later that day, the two largest U.S. oil companies — ExxonMobil and Chevron — faced internal reckonings as their shareholders voted, respectively, to install pro-climate action candidates on Exxon’s board and demand that Chevron reduce its emissions from the burning of oil and gas.
And right now, the next potentially explosive showdown seems to be brewing on Capitol Hill, where Big Oil executives could be forced to testify in front of Congress for the first time.
In recent weeks, both Senator Bernie Sanders, Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, and Representative Katie Porter, Chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, each invited ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods and other fossil fuel executives to testify at committee hearings. Both times the executives declined the chance to answer questions or defend themselves before the American people.
Senator Sanders’ hearing on “The Cost of Inaction on Climate Change” explored the financially devastating fallout of growing climate damages and what Congress could do to lessen the damage. In an interview with CBS News, Sanders, who invited Big Oil CEOs from ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP to testify, said their refusal to show up told him that “these guys don’t want to answer hard questions,” and referred back to the industry’s decades-old pattern of obscuring their dangerous operations from public view.
"These companies are producing a significant percentage of the carbon that we use, which is destroying our planet, and we want to know what they are doing to transform their companies away from fossil fuel," he said.
But instead of discussing that work under oath, executives are instead hiding behind one-sided paid ad campaigns touting their commitments.
Representative Porter, notorious for grilling financial and pharmaceutical executives with her trusty dry erase board, has promised to hold oil and gas companies to account in her new Oversight committee post. During the committee’s first hearing on the “Misuse of Taxpayer Dollars and Corporate Welfare in the Oil and Gas Industry,” which Porter called another “opportunit[y] for representatives and witnesses to be in conversation with Americans,” she called out the massive tax breaks the industry receives to drill on public lands and the COVID-19 bailout funds sent to Big Oil, even while executives laid off thousands of workers during the pandemic and American families struggled with minimal aid.
“Taxpayers need to have confidence that their dollars are actually helping families. The oil and gas industry gets billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies a year; their top executives owe an explanation to the American people about how they're spending that money," Porter said in a statement to E&E News. "Until families get the answers they deserve, Congress has a responsibility to keep asking questions."
But executives’ time to hide behind statements and ads might be coming to an end. Now Representative Ro Khanna, who chairs the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment and is organizing a hearing on climate disinformation, says he'll subpoena them if he has to.
"We have made it clear that we reserve the right to subpoena if those executives aren't showing up,” Khanna told E&E News. “We're going to be asking the CEO of Exxon, the CEO of Chevron, a number of these fossil fuel companies to come."
Khanna’s hearing would be the second to dive into the fossil fuel industry’s deception on climate. In 2019, the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties explored the consequences of that deception particularly for low-income communities and communities of color at the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Depending on how Congress plays its hand, this new hearing could mean Big Oil executives will face a similar reckoning to the CEOs of the country’s largest tobacco companies, who in 1994 appeared before Congress to answer questions under oath at a nationally televised hearing about their products' addictive and deadly effects.
As Representative Porter points out, taxpayer subsidies keep the fossil fuel industry afloat — oil executives have a duty to answer questions about what they’re doing with public money. So what are they so afraid of? Could they be avoiding testimony for the same reason they're avoiding trial — that they know what the outcome will be if they’re forced to come clean? When you've done something wrong, you try to avoid talking about it at all costs.
We should have our answer soon. But until these companies speak openly to the public on our terms, there’s no reason we should approach climate negotiations on theirs.
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