A House subcommittee heard testimony about the oil industry deception on climate changeDr. Naomi Oreskes and former Exxon scientist Dr. Ed Garvey testified about the oil industry's deception on climate change at a House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. Photo credit: Geoffrey Supran via Twitter

By Dana Drugmand

A panel of climate and legal experts that also included two former Exxon employees testified in Congress on Wednesday about the oil industry’s long history of suppressing what it knew about fossil fuels’ role in climate change. One of those former employees, Martin Hoffert, said he was “greatly distressed by the climate science denial campaign” that Exxon initiated after he left his consulting position.

Hoffert and former Exxon scientist Ed Garvey both testified about the company’s commitment in the 1970s to studying climate science, only to see it later promote groups that denied that science.

“This is immoral, and has greatly set back efforts to address climate change,” Hoffert said, adding that the company “deliberately created doubt” that contradicted its own research. 

Exxon’s history of early studying climate change before turning instead to funding climate denial efforts was at the center of the two-hour hearing Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The panel of witnesses also included Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor who has studied Exxon’s climate communications, and Sharon Eubanks, the attorney who led the federal government’s racketeering investigation of the tobacco industry.  

Oreskes, a historian who co-authored the book Merchants of Doubt, told the subcommittee that Exxon’s “change of course” in the 1980s was a pivotal historical moment and largely why the world has failed to take climate action despite clear scientific warnings. She said the oil companies’ “fateful decision to fight the facts” was clearly deliberate, “intended to undermine public support for action on climate change.” 

A key internal industry document supporting this notion of a deliberate campaign to mislead the public is a 1998 memo authored by the American Petroleum Institute, dubbed the “victory memo.” Eubanks said that memo revealed the industry’s plan to sow doubt and deceive not only the public, but Congress. The memo stated that “victory” would be achieved when “recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the conventional wisdom.” 

Eubanks said the federal racketeering case against tobacco companies was based on misrepresentations, the same kind also made by the oil companies. “What the oil companies did here is they denied that there was consensus, and at the same time their internal documents show they knew there was a consensus,” she said.

“So the representation of uncertainty in the scientific field when in fact there is certainty is itself actionable fraud?” asked Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). 

 “Yes it is,” Eubanks responded. “It was in the RICO case with tobacco, and there was an enterprise, a group of organizations, just like we see in the victory memo, who got together to do this and coordinate their activities.” 

These activities, such as misrepresenting climate science in advertorials or funding reports that mimic actual scientific reports, often compiled by allied organizations, intended to deceive the public and policymakers and delay action. As Raskin noted in his opening remarks, “The oil industry waged a war of deception that cost us precious time to save our planet.” 

“The fossil fuel industry did not just pollute the air, they also polluted the information landscape,” Oreskes said. 

The consequences include widespread destruction, mounting costs, and increasing danger to public health and safety. These impacts are already being borne by vulnerable communities and communities of color, from the more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans who died as a result of Hurricane Maria to the indigenous populations facing displacement from Alaska to Louisiana. “Our most vulnerable communities are the ones being hit first and worst,” Dr. Mustafa Ali, environmental justice expert and former EPA senior advisor, said in his testimony. 

“Even though the industry has reaped billions in profits, we, the American people are now footing the bill for the damage,” Oreskes said. This is the premise for the numerous climate liability lawsuits filed by state and local governments against fossil fuel companies over the past two years. 

Those lawsuits seeking compensation from the companies to help cover the costs of climate impacts are all based on the deceptive behavior discussed at length in Wednesday’s hearing. And while the oil companies no longer deny or dispute the climate science, the panelists said, they are continuing their misleading behavior as well as claiming that they are the victims of a conspiracy by climate activists and trial lawyers. As Eubanks explained, “Denial continues today, including in the courtroom.” 

That ongoing deceptive behavior was evident even in the hearing, with Republican subcommittee members and their lone witness making false claims. That witness, Mandy Gunasekara, founded a dark money group called Energy 45 to defend the Trump administration’s deregulatory energy and environmental agenda, and she also works with climate denial group the CO2 Coalition, a group funded in part by the Koch brothers. Gunasekara testified that the hearing was “not premised on facts” (despite documentary evidence like the victory memo) and was part of a “politically motivated campaign,” a claim often made by the oil companies themselves. She also said climate change itself would be “mild and manageable,” despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary.

As Democratic subcommittee member Jimmy Gomez said, this kind of industry-funded disinformation “represents a distortion of democracy.” 

Raskin echoed this point. “We have effectively been governed by Big Oil with respect to climate change,” he said.

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