House Democrats Hold Historic Hearing on How Big Oil Spent Decades Trying to 'Suppress the Truth' About the Climate Crisis

As ExxonMobil faced the second day of a New York state trial for defrauding investors about climate-related risks of burning fossil fuels, a Democrat-controlled U.S. House Oversight subcommittee on Wednesday held a historic hearing “examining the oil industry’s efforts to suppress the truth about climate change.”

“Like Big Tobacco, we must expose Big Oil’s deception and force their executives to confess under oath that they have risked the entire planet for their short-term greed.”
—Mike Tidwell, CCAN Action Fund

“The devastating effects of climate change are not borne equally by our planet’s population. Instead the consequences of climate change have had a disproportionate effect on people of color, low-income communities, and vulnerable populations that are often hit ‘first and worst,” noted a memo (pdf) from the subcommittee staff published ahead of the hearing. “Decades of climate denialism by the oil industry forestalled meaningful government action to avert the current crisis.”

In a statement Wednesday, Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North America director for the environmental group, said the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties hearing was “an important step in demonstrating how the climate crisis deepens racial injustice and public health challenges.”

“Just like Big Tobacco, Exxon executives buried the warnings of its own scientists, bankrolled deniers as politicians and advocates for destruction, and spent millions blocking the transformative action that science and justice demand,” she said. “Communities who have done nothing to cause the climate crisis—poor communities, communities of color, Indigenous Peoples, and workers—are bearing the full cost of Exxon’s lies through lives and livelihoods. It’s time fossil fuel billionaires pay for care and repair.”

That sentiment was echoed by Greenpeace USA, which tweeted: “Yesterday, Exxon was taken to court. Today, its climate denial scheme was put in front of Congress! Climate justice means making Big Oil pay for the climate crisis it created!”

Watch the hearing:

The subcommittee hearing featured testimony from experts on environmental justice and the human-caused climate crisis as well as a former scientist and consultant for ExxonMobil. Among the experts was Sharon Eubanks, who prosecuted the U.S. Department of Justice’s racketeering case against Big Tobacco.

In her statement (pdf) to lawmakers Wednesday, Eubanks outlined similarities between the tobacco and oil industries:

The #ExxonKnew campaign tweeted highlights from the hearing, including parts of Eubanks’ testimony:

Another witness was Harvard University professor Naomi Oreskes. In August of 2017, Oreskes and fellow researcher Geoffrey Supran published a peer-reviewed study in the journal Environmental Research Letters that confirmed findings from 2015 InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times reports about ExxonMobil’s decades-long record of suppressing climate science and sowing public doubt about the planetary crisis. She referenced the study in her prepared statement (pdf).

“In our study of ExxonMobil we demonstrated two things: First, that many of their advertorials were misleading, misrepresenting the state of the science, and exaggerating the degree of uncertainty,” Oreskes said. “Second, that there was a systematic discrepancy between what the advertorials—designed to influence public opinion—said about climate change and what the company and its scientists said either in private, or in communications that were intended for restricted scientific or industrial audiences.”

However, “fossil fuel disinformation goes well beyond ExxonMobil’s advertorials,” Oreskes continued. “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.”