Congress Outmatched by Oil Executives at What Was Meant to Be a Defining Hearing

Despite clear parallels to Big Tobacco’s historic 1994 hearing, Democrats may have been unable to deliver a turning point.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, speaks at committee hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, speaks at a committee hearing on the fossil fuel industry's role in climate change and spreading disinformation, in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 28, 2021. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

The House Oversight Committee hearing on the oil industry Thursday was advertised as a mirror image of the iconic 1994 hearing that many believe turned the tides in the tobacco wars.

That year, a group of older, white, and male chief executives hailing from Philip Morris, Lorillard Tobacco, U.S. Tobacco, Liggett Group, Brown and Williamson Tobacco, the American Tobacco Company, and R.J. Reynolds stammered and stumbled through televised congressional hearings, defensively retorting that cigarettes posed little health risk and were not addictive.

Negative headlines followed and local news outlets around the country carried embarrassing snippets from the testimony. Soon after, indoor smoking bans took off, from San Francisco that year to Utah and New York the following year. The tobacco executives faced a federal investigation for lying under oath during the hearing. The fallout led to an historic $205 billion settlement forcing the industry to fund public health measures and to litigation discovery, which further revealed decades of cover-up by the tobacco industry and provided more grist for its biggest critics. And the dramatic turn in public opinion started a steady decline in smoking habits.

That same sequence of events may have been the hope for the Thursday hearing, which featured the chief executives of ExxonMobil, BP America, Shell Oil, and Chevron, along with the heads of the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying groups representing the oil and gas industry. The hearing was titled “Exposing Big Oil’s Disinformation Campaign to Prevent Climate Action.”

The hearing, which lasted nearly six hours, may just be the beginning. The presiding chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., hinted strongly at subpoenas, and House Democrats chided the oil executives for not being forthcoming with documents requested by the committee.

But, at least in terms of tone, the oil hearing failed to live up to its precursor. Oil executives came better prepared, claiming that they had always embraced the “prevailing” scientific position. Their poised demeanor and carefully chosen words suggested that the industry had prepped as carefully as the Democrats and sought to avoid not only perjury but also any negative press fallout.

FILE - In this Thursday, April 14, 1994 file photo, the heads of the nation's largest cigarette companies are sworn in before a hearing of a House Energy subcommittee which was holding hearings on the contents of cigarettes on Capitol Hill in Washington. More than 40 states brought lawsuits demanding compensation for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. Big Tobacco settled in 1998 by agreeing to pay about $200 billion and curtail marketing of cigarettes to youths. From left are Robert Sprinkle III, executive vice president for Research American Tobacco Co.; Donald Johnston, American Tobacco; Thomas Sandefur Jr., Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp.; Edward Horrigan Jr., Liggett Group Inc.; Andrews Tisch, Lorillard Tobacco Co.; Joseph Taddeo, U.S. Tobacco Co.; James Johnston, RJ Reynolds; and William Campbell, Phillip Morris USA. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

The nation’s largest cigarette company executives are sworn in before a hearing on the contents of cigarettes in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1994.

Photo: John Duricka/AP

“Big Oil is due its Big Tobacco moment,” exclaimed a Los Angeles Times opinion column that ran the day before. In the first moments of the hearing, Maloney declared that the assorted oil executives “are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were.”

To be sure, the parallels are hardly contrived. ExxonMobil scientists have known since the late 1970s that the mass burning of fossil fuels will heat the environment to a dangerous degree, while the company’s lobbying affiliates and executives spent decades deceiving the public about this fact. The tobacco companies knew the clear harm of their products and lied; so does the oil and gas industry.

And the two industries use the same tactics. Many of the same front groups and operatives that served big tobacco, passing off phony academic studies on the safety of cigarettes, began working for big oil companies and spreading junk studies doubting the existence of global warming in a similar bid to muddle the truth.

The Heartland Institute, now the premiere think tank casting doubt on climate science, once played virtually the same role for tobacco. “Heartland does many things that benefit Philip Morris’ bottom line,” the Heartland Institute’s former President Joe Bast once wrote to Roy Marden, an executive at Philip Morris, in a request for another round of funding. Bast, the previous year, had authored an opinion piece arguing that there are “few, if any adverse health effects” from smoking.

J.P. Fielder, the BP America spokesperson tapped to remind reporters around the event of the company’s dedication to solving climate change, boasts a professional biography that may have been too perfect for oil critics: He previously served as a spokesperson for Philip Morris.

The oil industry, like the tobacco industry before it, also makes a concerted effort to claim that new technologies will resolve any problems, if they even exist. During the 1994 hearing, tobacco executives spoke about research into “de-nicotinization,” a supposed breakthrough that promised new age cigarettes — a turning point that never came. Now, oil executives constantly remind the public of the paltry amounts they have spent on renewables and carbon sequestration technology. The benefits of sequestration are still elusive, though one hub backed by ExxonMobil claims it will capture as much as 100 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2040.

House Republicans played a similar role. During the 1994 hearing, the ranking member, Rep. Thomas Bliley, who represented the Richmond suburbs in Virginia, croaked that the hearing was nothing more than an “unprecedented assault on tobacco that is unfortunately driven not by science but by press release.” The GOP members of this week’s Oversight Committee hearing were similar in bitterly protesting the fact that the hearing was even taking place. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., used his allotted time to rail against Democrats for “intimidating” oil executives, while Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., argued that it was “insane what my colleagues across the aisle are putting these good Americans through and attacking American workers as our country dissolves around us.”

Darren Woods, chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., speaks via videoconference during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Executives are testifying before the committee investigating allegations that oil giants misled the public about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming. Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Darren Woods, chair and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., speaks via videoconference during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 28, 2021.

Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Similarities aside, the oil hearing never achieved the emotional heft or politically powerful optics of the 1994 tobacco hearings, despite the exponentially larger number of people potentially harmed by rising sea levels, extreme weather, and other catastrophic events caused by the warming planet.

None of the oil and gas CEOs showed up physically in the hearing room. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the House of Representatives loosened committee rules, allowing experts to teleconference in. The result was a carefully staged video chat, not the grilling that activists perhaps had expected.

Each of the executives looked calm and collected, seated in offices with plants and other soothing decor. Mike Sommers, the API president, had an intentionally positioned American flag behind him during his testimony. And, unlike in 1994, there was gender diversity: Shell Oil’s U.S. subsidiary president and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s presidents are both women.

And while the tobacco leaders fumbled their responses, the oil executives were on message and perfectly in tune with their House Republican allies. They refused to engage substantively on climate and constantly pivoted to the need to provide cheap gasoline, American jobs, and abundant energy sources.

Reminders of the Colonial Pipeline hack, which brought immediate gas shortages earlier this year, were a constant refrain during the hearing. Is that what environmentalists want? Struggling Americans faced with inflation and a still weakened economy are already paying more at the pump. Why would the government raise another cost that would come straight out of the wallets of normal people? That was the message hammered home during the hearing, one that pitted the oil giants on the side of the little guy.

To make their populist point clear, House Republicans brought one witness: a former welder, Neal Crabtree, who said he lost his job when the Biden administration ended work on the Keystone XL pipeline.

During the hearing, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., delivered one of the most memorable moments, pressing the executives over their duplicitous use of third-party groups. The oil companies claim to support renewable energy, yet their trade groups lobby against electric vehicle-friendly policies, Khanna pointed out.

Khanna demanded to know if any of the companies would commit to ending funding to such lobby groups. “Will any of you commit to having an independent audit to verify that none of your funds are going to climate denial?” No one responded.

Khanna’s series of questions revealed the rank hypocrisy of the oil executives’ false promises of reform, though the sausage-making of industry tactics may have limited reach. Will the average American understand the ways in which oil companies fund trade groups that then fund think tanks and lobbyists that shape policy largely behind closed doors? The workings of what’s known as a 501(c)(6) aren’t exactly common knowledge.

“I need Chevron to cut the check. You owe $50 billion to Indigenous communities and people that you harmed for profit,” shouted Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., to Chevron CEO Michael Wirth, in an apparent reference to pollution allegedly tied to the company’s previous subsidiary, Texaco Petroleum.

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., poured colored candies from one jar to the next to provide a visual representation of the small percentage of money spent by oil companies on renewables versus oil extraction and refining.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., quipped about the age of the executives. “Some of us have to actually live the future that you all are setting on fire for us.” Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., pressed the executives on “white supremacy” and diversity, asking BP’s David Lawler, “Are the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel CEOs Black or white?”

But these moments, which might lend themselves to viral sharing on social media, didn’t land the same way as the most pointed moments of the 1994 tobacco hearing.

During that hearing, Rep. John Bryant, D-Texas, a conservative member, expressed that in many ways he sympathized with industry but wanted more information close to his heart. Why did his grandfather, who smoked every day, pass away when Bryant was still in the sixth grade? How can he raise his son to make his own choices if the cigarettes he smokes contain chemicals that enhance the addictive quality, robbing him of free choice?

It was in moments like these that the tobacco executives appeared suddenly aloof, unable to answer. They snarled that coffee is just as addictive, that Twinkies are just as unhealthy, and that if they are under scrutiny, alcoholic beverages should be too.

“I believe nicotine is not addictive,” each tobacco executive exclaimed, over and over, and then fought over the technical definition of “addictive.”

Long ago, during the New Deal, armed officers of the House of Representatives hauled bank and utility executives under warrant to testify before investigative hearings. The 1994 tobacco hearings at least faced the glare of the press gallery, the bright white beam of the committee lights, and gaze of angry lawmakers.

But this was nothing of the sort. It was a comfortable Zoom-style presentation of obfuscation the oil industry had been waiting and training to deliver, slipping and sliding around each question, and avoiding any major controversy that might make national news and encourage negative public opinion or strong government action.

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