House democrats brought the CEOs of four major oil companies before the Committee on Oversight and Reform Thursday for a grilling that several lawmakers openly hoped would have the historic significance of the 1994 hearing where cigarette executives denied that tobacco was addictive.
But the hearing lacked that kind of revelatory moment.
Those who track climate commitments in the oil sector know that European-based oil majors are evolving faster than those based in the United States. That was also clear at the hearing.
Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil, the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, was the only executive to express any sense of urgency about climatic disruption. “You seem like the star here,” California Congressman Ro Khanna told her.
Watkins said her company had “strongly advocated” for the U.S. to remain in the Paris climate accord, and once President Trump withdrew, to rejoin it. She stressed her company’s commitment to net zero emissions, including the carbon released from burning gasoline and other fuels, by 2050. Just before the hearing Shell announced it would cut 50% of the emissions that come from its own operations by 2030.
Shell will continue to develop fossil energy resources, she said.
Witnesses from the American Petroleum Institute and U.S. Chamber of Commerce also participated in the hearing.
Lobbying reports vs rhetoric
Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) said the oversight committee had analyzed lobbying reports, and they contradict the oil companies’ climate-friendly rhetoric. Addressing Michael K. Wirth, CEO of Chevron, which is based in San Ramon, CA, he said that not one of the company’s 986 lobbying reports examined had mentioned the Paris climate accord, while 144 had focused on tax breaks.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told the executives, “Some of us have to actually live the future you are all setting on fire for us.”
The democrats on the panel gave the company representatives little time to speak, insisting on yes-no answers and frequently cutting them off.
Rep. Khanna asked each executive whether they planned to cut oil and gas production by 4% and 3% respectively, consistent with a fossil fuel ramp-down to zero net emissions by 2050 to try to limit warming to 1.5ºC.
David Lawler, CEO of BP America, affirmed that BP plans to reduce production 40% by 2030. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods was interrupted as he said the company would do what is necessary to meet demand. Wirth indicated Chevron’s projections are for increases in production of 3.5% per year on average. Watkins said Shell will reduce production 1-2% per year.
Republicans apologized to the executives for the questioning. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) called their treatment “rank intimidation” of people, “who frankly heat our homes, cool our fridges and keep our cars running.”
The oversight committee’s ranking member James Comer (R-KY) said it was exactly the wrong time to talk about cutting production, when “gas prices have risen 27 days in a row.”
Several Republicans referred to what they view as the hypocrisy of asking producers to cut back in the United States when in August, the Biden administration appealed to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase production.
Republican members also repeatedly contrasted the Biden administration’s swift cancelation of the Keystone XL pipeline, with its failure to use sanctions to block the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that Russia wants in order to send its gas to Germany.
The intention of the industry to go forward with natural gas, biofuels, hydrogen and carbon capture was clear.
One of the strongest messages for executives may have come from California Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, who has five Bay Area refineries in his district. The Democrat lawmaker noted he was appointed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson to the Air Resources Board and had attended the funeral of a refinery worker who he said died for lack of a proper walkie talkie.
What is in front of us, he said, “is an energy industry that is important to us, but whose time is passing.”