House Oversight asks Big Oil board members to testify

By Nick Sobczyk | 01/21/2022 01:35 PM EST

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is calling members of the boards of directors of four oil companies to testify next month, expanding its investigation into the industry’s efforts to downplay climate change.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, during a hearing last year with oil executives. Francis Chung/E&E News | Francis Chung/E&E News

This story was updated at 2 p.m. EDT.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is calling members of the boards of directors of four oil companies to testify next month, expanding its investigation into the industry’s efforts to downplay climate change.

The panel yesterday asked members of the board from Exxon Mobil Corp., BP PLC, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Chevron Corp. to appear at a Feb. 8 hearing focused on the companies’ net-zero emissions pledges and whether they are sufficient to curb climate change.


“These pledges focus on emissions from companies’ own operations, omitting massive downstream emissions that occur when consumers burn the fossil fuels companies produce,” Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Environment Subcommittee Chair Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) wrote in letters to the board members. “Using this narrow metric allows companies to claim their emissions are decreasing even as they extract and sell more oil and gas, increasing their total emissions.”

The hearing is the second public event of the panel’s probe into what it has dubbed “Big Oil misinformation,” and it potentially signals a larger scope for the investigation. The invitation list includes Alexander Karsner, a former Department of Energy official who joined Exxon’s board last year as part of a bid by startup investment firm Engine No. 1 to shake up the company’s long-term strategy (Energywire, June 3, 2021).

During the first hearing late last year, Democrats sparred with top executives from the four companies, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute. At one point, Maloney accused Exxon CEO Darren Woods of lying to the committee (Greenwire, Oct. 28, 2021).

A few days later, Maloney subpoenaed all four companies and both trade organizations for documents related to their internal climate science, funding of outside organizations and historic efforts to spread climate misinformation.

Khanna said he plans to ask about Woods’ statements during the last hearing, as well as what the board members see as necessary for the company to align with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Net-zero pledge panned

Exxon announced a net-zero by 2050 pledge this week that was widely criticized by climate scientists and environmentalists because it did not cover so-called Scope 3 emissions — the downstream impact of its products that makes up the vast majority of the company’s greenhouse gas footprint.

“This hearing may actually be even a bigger deal than the first CEO hearings,” Khanna said in an interview. “It’s the first time you’re going to have people on the board of directors who campaigned as change agents, who campaigned as climate advocates, having to account under oath what’s really going on in these companies.”

In addition to Karsner, the committee invited Susan Avery, a climate expert and former president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who joined Exxon’s board in 2017.

Casey Norton, a spokesperson for Exxon, said in a statement: “We have been in regular communication with the committee since last summer and have provided staff with more than 200,000 pages of documents, including board materials and internal communications. In addition, our chairman and CEO voluntarily appeared before the committee and answered questions during the course of a 6-hour hearing.”

Said Khanna, “They told shareholders — Engine No. 1 and others — that they were going to make these companies responsible when it came to climate.” He added, “The question for them is, are they going to live up to what they said they’re going to do?”

From the other companies, the panel asked for appearances from Enrique Hernandez, who chairs the Public Policy and Sustainability Committee on Chevron’s board; Melody Meyer, chair of the safety and sustainability committee on BP’s board; and Jane Holl Lute of Shell.

Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith said the company is still reviewing the panel’s letter but is “working hard to provide the Committee with materials requested in November of 2021.”

“In a relatively short period of time, we have delivered to the Committee thousands of pages of documents that speak directly to Shell’s position on climate change over several decades, our strong support for the Paris Agreement, and our efforts to be an industry leader in the transition to a lower-carbon future,” Smith said in an email.

A spokesperson for Chevron did not respond to a request for comment. BP declined to comment.

Should the members of the boards of directors not appear, Khanna said, the committee could consider additional subpoenas.

Still, he said, the companies have been compliant with the document subpoenas Maloney issued last year.

“It’s been reasonable so far,” Khanna said. “They’ve started to produce documents. They understood we’re serious, that we’re not messing around.”

Lobbyist video spurs action

Khanna first began exploring the probe in the spring of last year, but it was accelerated in July, when a branch of Greenpeace UK released a secretly recorded video of former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy discussing the company’s strategy to undermine climate policy.

McCoy said, among other things, that Exxon supports a carbon tax only as a “talking point” and that it views trade organizations as the “whipping boy” for Congress (E&E Daily, July 1, 2021).

Exxon was suspended from the pro-carbon-tax Climate Leadership Council after the sting tape, and the company eventually said in September that it had parted ways with McCoy.

Maloney and Khanna had been seeking closed-door testimony from McCoy ahead of the CEO hearing but were unsuccessful. Khanna said the effort is on the “back burner” for now with the companies beginning to produce documents directly.

Maloney said the hearing next month will shed light on whether the companies are “paying lip service while continuing to put our planet at risk.”

“Boards of directors at fossil fuel companies play a key governance role in addressing the climate crisis,” Maloney said in a statement. “We invited them to testify so we can hold the fossil fuel industry accountable and ensure these companies are taking real action to combat climate change.”

Reporter Kelsey Brugger contributed.