Exxon had been dreading this day for decades.
On Thursday, the top executive at the oil and gas giant was grilled by Democratic lawmakers for allegedly lying to the public about climate change. Exxon CEO Darren Woods denied doing so, even as he was confronted with corporate documents during a historic congressional hearing showing his company knew about the climate emergency back in the 1970s.
“I don’t believe companies should lie, and I would tell you that we don’t do that,” Woods said at the hearing in Washington, which kicked off a one-year congressional investigation into decadeslong efforts by the oil industry to convince the public global heating isn’t real.
The six-hour hearing didn’t result in any new revelations about Exxon’s well-documented funding of climate denial beginning in the 1990s. But that could change given that House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney said she’ll subpoena the companies for sensitive documents, including ones showing how they fund climate disinformation.
“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.
Regardless of how it all plays out, climate disinformation experts say that Big Oil has been trying to avoid a moment like this at all costs.
“The hearing will go some distance to educating the public about how we got here on climate change,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, a nonprofit group helping support climate lawsuits against the oil and gas industry.
“It’s not ordinary people’s fault, it’s not some mystery, it’s not some big thing that’s too complex to understand. It’s actually really simple,” he told VICE News. “The oil companies knew their products were going to cause this crisis, and instead of doing the right thing, they ran the most consequential disinformation campaign in history.”
Exclusive polling commissioned by VICE News and the Guardian with Covering Climate Now helps explain why oil executives spent the day deflecting and avoiding questions about this campaign. Hearing that Exxon studied climate change extensively but then ran advertisements in outlets like the New York Times saying the science is “unsettled” makes average Americans more likely to directly blame the oil industry for causing climate change.
“This is about getting at the truth,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat, at the opening of the hearing. “Today, the CEOs of the largest oil companies in the world have a choice, you can either come clean… and stop supporting climate disinformation or you can sit there in front of the American public and lie under oath.”
The existence of these disinformation efforts is not in dispute.
A 1998 action plan memo created by Exxon, Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, and others states: “Develop and implement a national media relations program to inform the media about uncertainties in climate science; to generate national, regional and local media coverage on the scientific uncertainties, and thereby educate and inform the public, stimulating them to raise questions with policymakers.”
That plan went on to define “victory” as the moment when “‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto Proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change.”
But Exxon’s Woods refused to admit any wrongdoing during the hearing, even when confronted by Maloney with a 1997 statement from previous CEO Lee Raymond alleging that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight,” which directly contradicted what the company’s own scientists were finding internally.
“Our position in this space has been consistent with the general consensus of the scientific community,” Woods responded.
None of the heads of Chevron, BP, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—who also appeared virtually during the hearing—took responsibility for efforts to confuse the public about the central role of oil and gas in warming the atmosphere.
Instead, these executives stressed that climate change is a problem caused by all of us and the only way we can fight it is by working together. “We need meaningful action from all of us,” Woods said, echoing his oil industry peers. “We all have a role to play.”
That argument is less convincing when you consider that Exxon and 19 other fossil fuel firms are single-handedly responsible for one-third of all modern greenhouse gas emissions. Or that an Exxon scientist told the company in 1981 that it was “distinctly possible” that climate change caused by its business model “will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”
This information isn’t necessarily mainstream public knowledge, though, as evidenced by the VICE News poll, which found that only 60 percent of Americans overall—and just 28 percent of Republicans—hold the oil and gas industry completely or mostly responsible for climate change.
“Today’s hearing is a first step in educating the broader public about how Big Oil’s money poisoned the public discourse for decades on climate change,” Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive political group Our Revolution, told VICE News.
Republicans who took part in the proceedings predictably trashed the entire thing. “I’m sorry for the people in our country who have to witness shenanigans like this,” Rep. Byron Donalds said.
“You wonder whether there’s really many people whose minds would be changed one way or the other by whatever comes out of the investigation,” a former Republican congressional lawyer named Michael Stern earlier told E&E News. “The people who support the Democrats will believe the worst about the oil companies, and the people who oppose them won’t care.”
But there is evidence to suggest that learning directly about Exxon’s climate denial efforts can change people’s minds about climate change—even among conservatives.
Respondents to the VICE News poll were read a statement explaining that the company spent “decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation—an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking.”
The number of Republican respondents who held oil and gas companies partly or fully responsible for climate change rose 27.8 percent to 36.5 percent after they heard the statement. For Democrats it went from 83.3 percent to 90.3 percent.
“I don’t have the impression that most people outside the Beltway, outside the climate movement, realize the extent to which they’ve been lied to,” Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard University professor who studies oil and gas disinformation and helped House oversight and Reform Committee staffers prep for the hearing.
But Thursday could be an important step towards changing that. “This is just the first of many hearings and investigations and lawsuits,” he said.
Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.