Oil and gas CEOs were too chicken to show up to a recent congressional hearing—perhaps fearing that their climate pledges will be revealed as nothing more than slick PR.

By Sonali Kolhatkar

Everywhere around us there is evidence of climate change, from the increase in winter storms such as New England’s late January blizzard, to California’s recent record-breaking winter heat wave. Meanwhile, the world’s biggest oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP, whose products directly fuel global warming, have done little to counter the disastrous trend. While they have made promises that sound constructive on the surface, a cursory examination reveals them to be hollow. Perhaps worried about their deception being exposed, the executives and board members of these fossil fuel companies snubbed members of Congress at a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on February 8, 2022.

The hearing was entitled “Fueling the Climate Crisis: Examining Big Oil’s Climate Pledges.” Lawmakers were interested in whether companies were actually enacting their widely touted climate actions and were following up from a hearing last fall organized by the same committee which focused on the corporate cover-up of the climate crisis. The top oil executives did show up to that hearing in what was considered a historic appearance, and were subjected to a rare level of interrogation during which they generally refused to take responsibility for their actions.

We can only assume they did not want a repeat of such harsh scrutiny at the February hearing. Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) explained in her opening statement that these companies “have spent millions to advertise these plans [to combat climate change] and greenwash their images.” Surely, they would want to publicize the work they were supposedly doing to mitigate the climate crisis. But, according to Maloney, “when the committee invited board members of these companies to come in today and explain their pledges, they declined to appear on the date we requested.” She added, “[n]one of them showed up today. Not a single one.”

For decades, oil and gas companies engaged in outright denial, saying there was no such thing as global warming. ExxonMobil in particular was caught having buried its own internal research. Now that the game is up, the company has recast itself as a leader on the climate by claiming to support the Paris Accord and embracing the idea of “net-zero emissions.”

To promote the fantasy of how it will curb climate change, ExxonMobil launched a slick-looking website featuring a quote by CEO Darren Woods, saying, “We respect and support society’s ambition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and continue to advocate for policies that promote cost-effective, market-based solutions to address the risks of climate change.” This sentence could only have been written by a committee of lawyers and public relations experts.

First, in Woods’ worldview, society is aiming for reduced emissions, not his company, which apparently sees itself as above society.

Second, “net-zero emissions” is a pie-in-the-sky goal that looks really good on paper, until it becomes apparent that it is based on entirely unproven, untested, emerging technologies that may or may not work. The idea is akin to saying that it’s okay to litter all over your neighborhood if you also pick up trash elsewhere in the future because the net amount of trash you will have thrown onto the street will someday be zero. Oh, and the technology for picking up trash is only now being invented, so we just have to wait and see if it works.

Third, Woods says that ExxonMobil wants “cost-effective, market-based solutions”—this in spite of the fact that the predictable outcome of a cost-effective, market-based solution to meeting energy demands was climate change. Why would a market-based solution give us anything different this time around?

Fourth, the CEO says he is interested in “solutions to address the risks of climate change,” not to actually ensure that the climate doesn’t change. He also doesn’t specify whose well-being is at risk (ours) and who is risking our well-being (ExxonMobil).

Woods’ entire statement can be summed up as “net-zero” logic, spewing enough sincere-sounding fallacies about fixing climate change while balancing them out with just enough vagueness so as to provide legal cover for doing absolutely nothing.

It was this sort of trickery that the recent congressional hearing was aimed at exposing. Since the oil and gas executives were too chicken to show up and face the music, the committee instead invited climate experts such as Dr. Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, and Tracey Lewis, climate and energy policy counsel with Public Citizen, to answer questions about the climate pledges. Over the course of three hours, lawmakers including Ro Khanna of California and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan delved deep into the various euphemisms that companies like ExxonMobil employ to gloss over their inaction.

The most egregious example was revealed to be ExxonMobil’s accounting trick to hide its carbon footprint. Not only is the idea of net-zero emissions an unrealistic diversion, but the company also wants to apply it only to the production side of its operations, not to the oil and gas it sells. Representative Khanna said it was “like an automaker pledging to eliminate emissions from their manufacturing but doing nothing to improve their cars’ fuel efficiency.”

Conservatives have risen to the defense of fossil fuel companies. Although oil and gas company executives were absent (by their own choice), Republican lawmakers such as Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and a witness named Katie Tubb from the Heritage Foundation were eager mouthpieces for the industry. The only defenses left in the face of certain climate catastrophe are couched in imperialist thinking—such as, “the industry’s health is a measure of American prestige, and curbing it will mar the U.S.’s global standing”—and false equivalencies, like, “given all the beneficial outcomes of oil and gas products, curbing fossil fuels will destroy civilization.” Congresswoman Foxx and Ms. Tubb employed both.

Foxx raised the favorite Republican idea of the United States achieving “energy independence” or “energy freedom,” which is code for gobbling up fossil fuel resources more quickly and cheaply than competitor nations, no matter what the consequences.

And Tubb bizarrely cited how her contact lenses that are made from fossil fuel products are a gift. She said, “I’m very thankful for that; it’s improved the well-being and productivity of my life,” as if to say that if we want the convenience of contact lenses, we need to embrace ExxonMobil’s profit-driven desire to destroy our planet. In Tubb’s view, if it’s her lenses or life on earth, she chooses lenses.

This is exactly the logic employed by former President Donald Trump, who deftly relied on his supporters’ ignorance of how wind energy works when he claimed that the television wouldn’t work as soon as the wind died down.

There was a time when the likes of Trump, Foxx and Tubb simply cast doubt on the science of climate change. Now that that doesn’t work—given how apparent the change is to most of us—the response has morphed into a version of “So what? Should we live like barbarians?”

The pro-fossil fuel view is that if we want to embrace Western living standards, climate catastrophe is the price we must pay. Otherwise, we relegate ourselves to living like those unfortunate residents of third world nations who routinely live without electricity or contact lenses.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for Allproject at the Independent Media Institute.