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Khanna at fossil fuel subsidies rally

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) speaks at a rally near the U.S. Capitol about ending fossil fuel subsidies on June 29, 2021. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Today Was the Day Big Oil Lied Before Congress

Whether this historic hearing has the same impact as the 1994 Big Tobacco hearing all depends on what comes next.

Jamie Henn

The Big Oil Hearings just wrapped up a few minutes ago, so I wanted to share a few thoughts on today’s historic events. This was the first time that oil executives have been called to testify before Congress about their role in spreading climate disinformation and the hearings didn’t disappoint. Here’s my take.

The executives that testified today have already been dubbed the Slippery Six. They may have been able to slither out of some tough questions today, but their words are likely to come back and haunt them in the future.

These oil executives lied before Congress today. Each of them said that they had never approved climate disinformation campaigns, even though right at this very moment, each of their companies are running false advertising that downplays the risk of fossil fuels and pretends that their companies are committed to climate action. Disinformation is information that’s meant to mislead and this fossil fuel advertising is exactly that: propaganda designed to mislead the public into thinking these companies care about the climate crisis even as they double down on producing the pollution that’s making it worse.

Despite their green rhetoric, not a single executive would commit to stop lobbying against climate action in Congress or to tell their attack dog, the American Petroleum Institute, to stop spending millions of dollars to defeat President Biden’s climate agenda. In politics, money speaks louder than words and the message coming from the fossil fuel industry is deafening: we will do everything in our power to keep you addicted to our product.

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods couldn’t even bring himself to condemn the obviously misleading statements of past Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, who publicly called climate change a hoax, arguing that Raymond’s statements reflected the scientific understanding at the time. Woods simultaneously tried to argue that Exxon had always respected the scientific consensus, which clearly showed that fossil fuels were contributing to global warming. He can’t have it both ways. By refusing to come clean about their decades of deception, Exxon continues to engage in exactly the sort of disinformation that this hearing was designed to investigate.

This hearing couldn’t have come at a more important time. As the oil executives were testifying before Congress, President Biden was outside the Capitol promoting his watered-down Build Back Better Agenda. While the plan still makes significant investments in climate action, it is nowhere near the transformative agenda the President first proposed, in large part because of the massive fossil fuel lobbying that has been channeled through industry-friendly senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

Watching Exxon’s CEO admit to meeting with multiple members of Congress about the infrastructure bill made my stomach turn. We knew from the leaked tape of Exxon’s lobbyist that the company had been having ‘weekly phone calls’ with Manchin and other key players, but to hear the CEO himself admit to this sort of direct contact really destroys your faith in the process. We don’t often get to see corruption play out in real time and it was gruesome to watch. 

It was inspiring to see so many Democrats standing up to Big Oil. From Rep. Porter using M&Ms to show the industry’s paltry investments in renewables to Rep. Bush calling out the industry for its environmental racism and white supremacy, this is the type of leadership that climate activists have been hungry for. Let’s hope that this sort of bravery is contagious and spreads all the way to the Oval Office where President Biden has yet to use the executive authorities at his disposal to truly take on Big Oil and stop the federal approval for dangerous fossil fuel products.

Whether this hearing has the same impact as the 1994 Big Tobacco hearing all depends on what comes next. While it was clear to many at the time, it took a series of leaked documents from industry insiders to prove that the tobacco executives were lying when they told Congress that they didn’t think cigarettes were addictive. We’ll need to see similar documents out of these oil companies to prove that they’ve intentionally misled the public about the dangers of fossil fuels and lied about their commitments to climate action.

The next step for this Committee should be to hear testimony from the ad agencies, PR companies, and social media firms who spread disinformation on the part of the fossil fuel industry. If the oil companies manufacture the disinformation drug, these are the dealers who disseminate it to the public. They are just as complicit for contributing to this crisis and also need to be held accountable.

The tobacco executives that testified before Congress became forever known as the Seven Dwarfs. The executives that testified today have already been dubbed the Slippery Six. They may have been able to slither out of some tough questions today, but their words are likely to come back and haunt them in the future. Perhaps the best thing that came out of today’s hearing was the knowledge that it’s only the beginning. 


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Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn is the director of Fossil Free Media and a co-founder of 350.org.

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