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Big oil trial to start US climate disinformation inquiry

By Timothy Gardner and Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A congressional hearing this week on whether oil companies have misled the public about climate change is the start of a broad investigation that could extend to other industries from advertising to social media, according to a lawmaker leading the effort.

The comprehensive nature of the Democratic-led inquiry reflects increasing urgency within the party to address global warming, as Republicans and moderate Democrats block climate change at the heart of President Joe Biden’s spending bill, and as world leaders prepare to meet on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland next month.

“It will be a year-long investigation and the hearings are the beginning of it,” Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat on the House Committee, told Reuters in an interview. “The idea is that they have to admit to the American people what they did.”

Top executives from Exxon Mobil Corp, BP America, Chevron Corp and Shell Oil, along with lobby groups the American Petroleum Institute and the Chamber of Commerce, will testify at the Home Supervision Committee hearing on October 28.

Democratic lawmakers have said they want to model the opportunity after the House’s Great Tobacco Survey of the 1990s, which took place over many months and eventually revealed that companies had buried evidence that cigarettes were addictive and harmful.

Khanna said Thursday’s hearing will focus on the energy industry’s denial for decades that their products play a leading role in stimulating climate change, and on whether the companies’ current claims to support climate action are real.

He said the committee would also eventually turn to the oil industry’s use of advertising and social media platforms and also seek testimony from executives in those companies.

Managers of social media firms such as Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc have already come under intensive scrutiny by Congress over their role in permeating fake news and their impact on the well-being of young social media users.

The CEOs who agreed to testify at the virtual trial are Darren Woods of Exxon Mobil, David Lawler of BP America, Michael Wirth of Chevron and Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil. Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute and president of the Chamber of Commerce, Suzanne Clark, will also testify.

Everyone denied that they had deliberately misled the public about climate change.


A source involved in the oil industry’s preparations for the trial said the companies hope to use the trials to highlight their recent efforts to address climate change by investing in renewable energy and research and development.

Managers are also expected to highlight the rise in petrol and natural gas prices due to the global energy supply crisis and argue that a rapid shift away from fossil fuels will lead to even higher energy bills, the source said.

Carolyn Maloney, chair of the committee, asked the executives for documents dating back to the 1970s that show who the companies and groups funded on climate campaigns and what internal scientists advised them on climate.

Khanna said the committee was dissatisfied with the number of documents submitted so far, and implied that it could lead to subpoenas. “We are willing to use any tool at our disposal to get more documents,” he said.

He said the documents received so far include some of a former Exxon lobbyist, Keith McCoy, who was secretly recorded -climate-idCAKCN2E62TJ by the environmental group Greenpeace, says the company’s support for a carbon tax was a list to progressively prevent climate change, as the company believed the idea would never become law.

Exxon said McCoy’s statements were an inaccurate portrayal of the company’s position. McCoy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thursday’s hearing is also likely to highlight a strategic rift between Europe and US-based energy companies over climate change. European companies like BP and Shell are moving faster to clean energy businesses than US-based Exxon and Chevron.

“I think this is an opportunity for a company like BP to show that we are in action towards a net zero target by 2050,” said JP Fielder, a BP America spokesman. Shell’s Watkins said meeting the demand for renewable energy while addressing the climate “is a big business and one of the defining challenges of our time.”

Exxon spokeswoman Casey Norton said the company had made “significant investments in next-generation technology” and “advocates for responsible climate-related policies.”

Chevron did not comment.

(Reported by Timothy Gardner; Edited by Stephen Coates)

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