Congress just held their first ever hearing on the fossil fuel industry’s history of climate denial.
“The evidence seems overwhelming that for decades, the oil industry understood the lethal threat of climate change but misled the American people,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), chair of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, in his opening remarks.
It’s well-established that for at least 50 years, oil and gas giants such as Exxon knew that their products fuel the climate crisis—and that the results of that crisis would be catastrophic—and continued producing them anyway.
“The effect of this disinformation was to delay action,” said Martin Hoffert, who was a scientific consultant for Exxon in the 1980s and an expert witness at Wednesday’s hearing. “They deliberately created doubt when internal research confirmed how serious a threat it was.”
Committee Vice Chair Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) agreed, and she brought receipts. The Congresswoman showed Exxon’s projections from 1982, which predicted that “by this year, 2019, the Earth would hit a carbon dioxide concentration of 415 parts per million and temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius.”
Their predictions turned out to be completely accurate. “We were excellent scientists,” Hoffert said, grimacing.
The fossil fuel industry has also poured millions of dollars into a disinformation campaign to undermine climate science.
“In our 2017 analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications, my postdoctoral research fellow, Dr. Geoffrey Supran, and I analyzed ExxonMobil’s outreach to the general public through paid advertising in leading newspapers,” testified science historian Naomi Oreskes. She and Supran found that the ads falsely inflated scientific doubt about human-caused climate change.
Exxon didn’t just fund advertorials. “The fossil fuel industry has also promoted disinformation through the activities of third-party allies: other organizations and groups, with whom they collaborated on messaging, helped to fund, or helped to create,” Oreskes testified.
Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that the Republicans’ only witness at the hearing, Mandy Gunasekara, works for one of those groups. Gunasekara, a former Trump appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency, is an adviser to the pro-fossil fuel nonprofit the CO2 Coalition.
“Are you aware that they are primarily funded by the Mercer family and the Koch Brothers,” Ocasio-Cortez asked. Both the Mercers and the Kochs have investments in fossil fuels, and have been major contributors to the war on climate science.
Gunesekara said she didn’t know they funded the organization. “I’m not familiar with the makings of the institution,” she told Ocasio-Cortez.
“Thank you for your testimony that you are not unwittingly working for the Koch brothers,” Ocasio-Cortez responded. Many in the audience laughed.
In her testimony, Gunasekara said she thought another misinformation campaign was at work. She said the hearing was “the latest product of a politically-motivated campaign hatched years ago by politicians, activists, and well-funded foundations that want to demonize an entire industry and paint them as corrupt institutions.”
Republicans even took issue with the hearing’s placement. “I must say I’m puzzled a little bit as to why the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee was chosen for this,” said ranking committee member Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX). “We have a subcommittee on the environment. I think that would have been a more appropriate place for it.”
As the National Wildlife Federation’s Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization Mustafa Santiago Ali testified, the climate crisis is a civil rights issue. “Communities of color carry the burden of burning fossil fuels,” he said.
The hearing came one day after ExxonMobil, the country’s largest fossil fuel company, went to trial to fight allegations that it misled investors about the risks climate change would pose to its business. The case is the first ever about climate fraudulence to go to trial.
New York Attorney General Leticia James claims that the company violated New York’s most powerful ant-fraud statute, the Martin Act, by showing their shareholders different cost projections than they used internally.
“Exxon in effect erected a Potemkin village to create the illusion that it had fully considered the risks of future climate change regulation and had factored those risks into its business operations,” the lawsuit says.
ExxonMobil officials maintain that they did nothing wrong by having two sets of books. “The New York Attorney General’s case is misleading and deliberately misrepresents a process we use to ensure company investments take into account the impact of current and potential climate-related regulations,” they said in a statement.
As Exxon officials headed into trial on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay to 26 oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, in a Baltimore lawsuit alleging that they knowingly contributed to the climate crisis.
The suit, which Baltimore officials filed in August 2018, claims that the companies “have known for nearly half a century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel products create greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet and changes our climate.”
It’s significant that the Supreme Court denied the companies a stay. Though lawyers are still fighting over whether or not the case should be heard at the state or federal level—the companies argue the latter for reasons we explained here—Baltimore officials can now begin the discovery process, which forces the companies to turn over evidence supporting the state case, including documents showing their longstanding knowledge of their contributions to climate disaster.
All in all, this has been a bad week for Big Oil.