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Climate activists protested outside ExxonMobil's annual meeting of shareholders in Irving, Texas on May 29, 2019. (Photo: 350.org/Flickr/cc)

Dems Call Fossil Fuel CEOs, Lobbyists to Testify About Climate Disinformation

"Oil and gas executives have lied to the American people for decades about their industry's role in causing climate change. It's time they were held accountable."

Jessica Corbett

Democratic leaders on the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee sent letters Thursday inviting the heads of key fossil fuel companies and lobbying groups to testify before the panel about the industry's contributions to climate disinformation in recent decades.

"Exposing the industry's disinformation is a critical step in holding it accountable for the damage it has done and clearing the way for meaningful change."
—Jamie Henn, Fossil Free Media

Applauded by advocates of holding polluters and their business partners accountable for fueling the worsening climate emergency, the letters come amid concerns about how corporate lobbyists may influence a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better package—especially in the wake of a damning exposé on ExxonMobil earlier this summer.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who respectively chair the House panel and its Environment Subcommittee, wrote that "we are deeply concerned that the fossil fuel industry has reaped massive profits for decades while contributing to climate change that is devastating American communities, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and ravaging the natural world."

"We are also concerned that to protect those profits, the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change," the pair continued. They also expressed concern that such "strategies of obfuscation and distraction continue today," noting that "fossil fuel companies increasingly outsource lobbying to trade groups, obscuring their own roles in disinformation efforts."

"One of Congress's top legislative priorities is combating the increasingly urgent crisis of a changing climate," the lawmakers added. "To do this, Congress must address pollution caused by the fossil fuel industry and curb troubling business practices that lead to disinformation on these issues."

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, BP America CEO David Lawler, Chevron CEO Michael Wirth, Shell president Gretchen Watkins, American Petroleum Institute (API) president Mike Sommers, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Suzanne Clark (pdfs) now have a week to inform Democrats if they plan to willingly testify at the panel's October 28 hearing.

Pointing to industry leaders' past behavior, Accountable.US president Kyle Herrig said that "these polluters have long proven they're more concerned with boosting their executives' bottom lines than with protecting the climate. The only question is: will they defend their harmful actions before Congress? Or will they again refuse to answer to the American people?"

The Democrats also requested information from the firms, including internal communications and memos about climate science and related marketing as well as plans to reduce planet-heating emissions across the industry. If the letter recipients refuse to participate or turn over those materials, the panel's leaders may issue subpoenas.

Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, celebrated the letters in a statement that acknowledged other efforts to hold the industry accountable, including more than two dozen lawsuits filed by state and local governments in recent years.

"We applaud Chairs Maloney and Khanna for demanding that these executives answer for their history of climate deception," he said. "Oil and gas executives have lied to the American people for decades about their industry's role in causing climate change. It's time they were held accountable. If the executives refuse to testify voluntarily, they should be subpoenaed."

In a video released earlier this month, Khanna vowed that the panel's probe of the fossil fuel industry's role in climate disinformation "will be like the Big Tobacco hearings" of the 1990s.

Harvard University researcher Geoffrey Supran—whose academic publications include the first peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil's 40-year history of climate communications—said at the time that "it's no surprise that Big Oil and Big Tobacco have used the same propaganda playbook to confuse the public and undermine political action, because they rely on many of the same PR firms and advertising agencies to do their dirty work."

Ad and PR agencies are under mounting pressure to ditch fossil fuel clients for good, thanks in part to the Clean Creatives campaign supported by Fossil Free Media, both of which welcomed the letters.

"This is a landmark day in the climate fight," said Fossil Free Media director Jamie Henn, noting the impact of the tobacco hearings. "For decades, the fossil fuel industry has polluted our political process along with polluting our atmosphere. Exposing the industry's disinformation is a critical step in holding it accountable for the damage it has done and clearing the way for meaningful change."

Clean Creatives campaign director Duncan Meisel suggested that "this investigation is the beginning of the end of misleading fossil fuel advertising and PR in the United States."

"For too long, this industry has used fake front groups, advanced greenwashing, and straight up deception to delay climate action, every time with the willing help of some of the biggest ad and PR firms in the world," he said. "Reps. Khanna and Maloney are following in the footsteps of congressional investigations that devastated the reputations of tobacco companies and their advertisers. Fossil fuel companies and their agencies are now on notice that they are next."

This post has been updated with comment from Accountable.US.


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