House committee intends to subpoena fossil fuel companies for documents about climate disinformation

House committee intends to subpoena fossil fuel companies for documents about climate disinformation
Eddie Seal/Bloomberg/Getty Images/FILE

House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney announced at the end of Thursday’s hearing with top executives from the fossil fuel industry that she plans to subpoena the oil companies and trade groups for key documents related to their conduct around the climate crisis.

Her announcement came after the executives testified in front of Congress for the first time about the companies’ role in climate disinformation.

Maloney said that while the companies and trade groups did provide many documents that were publicly available, they did not supply the specific internal documents the committee was looking for.

“We are at code red for climate and I committed to doing everything I can to help rescue this planet and save it for our children,” the New York Democrat said during her closing remarks. “We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas we will.”

“Unfortunately, none of the six entities have produced a substantial portion of the key documents the committee requested,” Maloney said. “Instead, they produced reams of other documents, many of which were publicly available.”

The six entities that voluntarily appeared at the hearing were: ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron, Shell Oil, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Specifically, Maloney said the oil companies have not produced “detailed funding information” the lawmakers requested to understand their “payments to shadow groups,” public relations firms and others. Other documents requested include corporate strategies around climate change and internal documents and communications from senior executives about their companies’ role in the climate crisis.

“I have tried very hard to obtain this information voluntarily, but the oil companies employ the same tactics they used for decades on climate policy: delay and obstruction,” Maloney said.

The hearing came after reports the fossil fuel industry has participated in campaigns aimed at creating confusion about the cause of the climate crisis or sowing skepticism in the science. An undercover video released this summer appeared to show an ExxonMobil lobbyist admitting the company fought climate policy and the science behind it.

During the hearing, committee members pressed the executives about their knowledge of the climate crisis, the role fossil fuels have played in it and their desire to put profits over a climate solution.

Fossil fuel companies used their time to focus on their commitment to solving the climate crisis, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and to emphasize the steps they are taking to lower emissions.

Democratic lawmakers said the hearing was fossil fuel companies’ “Big Tobacco” moment, a nod to the famous 1994 hearings when Big Tobacco CEOs insisted that cigarettes were not addictive.

“I think this is the modern-day equivalent of the tobacco executives telling Congress that smoking is just fine,” Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman, whose state of California has been ravaged by climate-fuel wildfires, told CNN. “You always hope for accountability and progress. Honestly, looking at the big US fossil fuel companies, it’s hard to imagine them approaching this in that spirit.”

And like the tobacco hearings of the ’90s, this hearing won’t be the end of Congress’ investigation into fossil fuel misinformation.

The committee’s investigation has been ongoing for about three months. Lawmakers particularly want to know more about the companies’ more recent activities, from 2015 to the present, including their presence and ads on social media.

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