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Scientists slam Big Oil’s eco strategy as 'rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic'

At a congressional hearing scrutinizing Big Oil's commitments to curb climate change, there was one glaring absence: representatives of the fossil fuel companies themselves.

Board members representing ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell Oil all were invited to appear Tuesday morning at a hearing in what has been an ongoing investigation from the House Oversight and Reform Committee into pledges from the the industry to reduce carbon emissions as well as Big Oil's history of denying its role in climate change.

With none of them in attendance, however, the committee instead called on members of the scientific community to testify on whether the companies' promises to get carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 are effective policy or mere pandering, and whether the plans are consistent with the Paris climate accord's goal to limit global warming.

ExxonMobil released a plan last month to get to net zero by 2050, but, as with pledges made by Chevron and other oil companies, this plan does not include "scope 3 emissions" that result from shippers getting oil to the pump and consumers burning the oil these companies produce.

"That means it only applies to the emissions of their actual drilling and their actual production of oil, not to any of the oil they sell," said Representative Roe Khanna, a California Democrat.

"It's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It is not addressing the gorilla in the room. Ninety percent of the carbon emissions are from scope 3," said Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, who testified at the hearing via videoconference.

"That's sort of like your doctor telling you that you need to cut fat from your diet and so you switch to 40% reduced fat potato chips, but you eat twice as many of them. That doesn't help. The net amount of fat that you're taking in actually increases and that's effectively what fossil fuel interests are doing here. That's the sort of shell game, if you'll forgive the pun, that they're playing here," Mann said.

Mann warned that several of these companies' plans include reducing the "carbon intensity" of fossil fuels, effectively allowing companies to expand production of fossil fuels rather than turning to clean energy.

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Republicans on the committee took up the mantle of laying out Big Oil's defense, insisting that the focus on science is actually political.

"Democrats can attack an industry that provides good paying jobs and energy for all Americans," Representative James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky, said. "We should conduct real oversight of the Biden administration's disastrous policies that have led to a surge in gas prices and inflation.

Analysts have attributed high oil prices to a supply that has not been able to keep up with the demand which has shifted constantly during the pandemic and tensions with Russia, which holds a significant portion of the world's oil and gas supply.

"Rather than interrogate these companies engaged in the yet legal activities of producing and selling oil to American and global customers, Congress should be seeking to understand the ongoing energy price crisis, ending the vulnerabilities it has exposed, and examining policy tools to eliminate barriers for the efficient functioning of energy markets," said Katie Tubb, an energy and environmental policy analyst for Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The committee has already put pressure on Big Oil about its history with climate change, subpoenaing thousands of pages of records about the companies' internal communications about climate change in November 2021. This followed an October hearing with top oil executives in which committee members questioned company heads about their companies' past efforts to obfuscate responsibility for climate change.

Executives of the top oil companies did testify at that October hearing but their absence Tuesday did not go unmentioned by Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney.

“When the committee invited board members of these companies to come in today and explain their pledges, they declined to appear on the date we requested, none of them showed up today. Not a single one," the New York Democrat said at the top of the hearing.

Maloney hinted that subpoenas may be in order should they miss the next hearing on March 8. "If they do not agree to appear, the committee will use every tool at its disposal to get the information we need," Maloney said.

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The committee has already put pressure on Big Oil about its history with climate change, subpoenaing thousands of pages of records about the companies' internal communications about climate change in November 2021.