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Oil giants deny spreading disinformation on climate change

Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, testified via video conference during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change Thursday.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Top executives of ExxonMobil and other oil giants denied spreading disinformation about climate change as they sparred Thursday with congressional Democrats over allegations that the industry concealed evidence about the dangers of global warming.

Testifying at a landmark House hearing, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said the company “has long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change, and it has devoted significant resources to addressing those risks.″

The oil giant’s public statements on climate “are and have always been truthful, fact-based … and consistent” with mainstream climate science, Woods said.

Democrats immediately challenged the statements by Woods and other oil executives, accusing them of engaging in a decades-long, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming.

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“They are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were,’’ said Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Oversight Committee.

She was referring to a 1994 hearing with tobacco executives who famously testified that they didn’t believe nicotine was addictive. The reference was one of several to the tobacco hearing as Democrats sought to pin down oil executives on whether they believe in climate change and that burning fossil fuels such as oil contributes to global warming.

Republicans accused Democrats of grandstanding over an issue popular with their base as President Biden’s climate agenda teeters in Congress.

Kentucky Representative James Comer, the top Republican on the oversight panel, called the hearing a “distraction from the crises that the Biden administration’s policies have caused,’’ including gasoline prices that have risen by $1 per gallon since January.

The hearing comes after months of public efforts by Democrats to obtain documents and other information on the oil industry’s role in stopping climate action over multiple decades. The fossil fuel industry has had scientific evidence about the dangers of climate change since at least 1977, yet spread denial and doubt about the harm its products cause— undermining science and preventing meaningful action on climate change, Maloney and other Democrats said.

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“Do you agree that (climate change) is an existential threat? Yes or no?’’ Maloney asked Shell Oil president Gretchen Watkins.

“I agree that this is a defining challenge for our generation, absolutely,’’ Watkins replied.

Watkins, Woods, and other oil executives said they agreed with Maloney on the existence and threat posed by climate change, but they refused her request to pledge that their companies would not spend money — either directly or indirectly — to oppose efforts to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re pledging to advocate for low-carbon policies that do in fact take the company and the world to net-zero” carbon emissions, said BP America CEO David Lawler.

The committee released a memo Thursday charging that the oil industry’s public support for climate reforms has not been matched by meaningful actions, and that the industry has spent billions of dollars to block reforms. Oil companies frequently boast about their efforts to produce clean energy in advertisements and social media posts accompanied by sleek videos or pictures of wind turbines.

Maloney and other Democrats have focused particular ire on Exxon, after a senior lobbyist for the company was caught in a secret video bragging that Exxon had fought climate science through “shadow groups” and had targeted influential senators in an effort to weaken Biden’s climate agenda, including a a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a sweeping climate and social policy bill currently moving through Congress.

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In the video, Keith McCoy, a former Washington-based lobbyist for Exxon, dismissed the company’s public expressions of support for a proposed carbon tax on fossil fuel emissions as a “talking point.”

McCoy’s comments were made public in June by the environmental group Greenpeace UK, which secretly recorded him and another lobbyist in Zoom interviews. McCoy no longer works for the company, Exxon said last month.

Woods, Exxon’s chairman and chief executive, has condemned McCoy’s statements and said the company stands by its commitment to work on finding solutions to climate change.

Chevron CEO Michael Wirth also denied misleading the public on climate change. ‘’Any suggestion that Chevron has engaged in an effort to spread disinformation and mislead the public on these complex issues is simply wrong,’’ he said.