Congress has cornered the leaders of the oil industry. But will they lie under oath?

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Cover the climate nowThis story originally appeared in The Guardian and is part of “Climate Crimes”, a special series by The Guardian and Covering Climate Now focused on how the fossil fuel industry contributed to the climate crisis and lied to the American public. Mark Hertsgaard is the Executive Director of Covering Climate Now.

The day is a day of historic climate drama in Washington. At the Capitol Hill end of Pennsylvania Avenue, an unprecedented event: The CEOs of four of the world’s largest private oil companies are summoned to testify under oath before Congress about decades of lies by their companies about the deadly dangers they face. pose their products.

There is no mystery about who the bad guys are in this drama, only how Big Oil will play this pivotal moment in the climate emergency: Will these leaders finally admit their corporate lies and take responsibility for the havoc they have caused? Or will they continue to lie, if only by proclaiming that they are now climate champions working to resolve the crisis that is engulfing humanity?

Oil company executives have dodged previous requests to testify before Congress on these issues, and it is easy to see why. The case against them, taken from their own cases, is detailed, abundant and damning.

As voluminous investigative reports dating back to 2015 have documented, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron have known since the 1980s at the latest that the burning of oil, gas and coal would overheat the planet and endanger civilization. ; their own scientists told them. They did it anyway.

The companies didn’t just hide their knowledge of what was to come; they spent millions of dollars telling the public that global warming was not real. Indeed, 31 percent of Americans still do not accept that climate change is happening, according to a new poll commissioned by The Guardian, Vice News, and Cover the Climate Now. Which helps explain why the Republican Party can firmly oppose President Joe Biden’s climate agenda and pay no apparent political price.

The story of Big Oil’s deception and obstruction brought hundreds of billions of dollars in profits, wages and stock options to executives who were to testify today. But it also set mankind on a path to a “catastrophic” future of scorching heat, devastating drought and storms and relentless sea level rise, just like Big Oil scientists project decades ago.

Today, the role of witnesses for the House Monitoring and Reform Committee includes Big Oil 4: Darren Woods of ExxonMobil, Michael Wirth of Chevron, David Lawler of BP and Gretchen Watkins of Shell Oil. The CEOs of two professional associations in the petroleum industry are expected to join them: Mike Sommers of the American Petroleum Institute and Suzanne Clark of the US Chamber of Commerce.

These executives will have the chance to earn their multi-million dollar salary at today’s hearing. Faced with questions from interrogators as astute as Reps Katie Porter of California and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, they’ll have to somehow explain why their companies have kept their knowledge of the deadly effects of fossil fuels under wraps for so long.

CEOs seem to have two options. They can own up to their company’s sordid history and pledge to make amends. Or they can deflect, block and continue to lie, with the added twist that they would be lying now about the decades of lies they have already told.

But lying under oath is perilous, especially when those lies are refuted by your own documents. The stakes double when your businesses face dozens of lawsuits citing these lies and claiming billions of dollars in damages. The offices of the attorneys general in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and other jurisdictions will likely be watching today’s hearing closely, eager to seize any false statements they may present as evidence in their own cases.

Yet the lie is what these companies know. ExxonMobil, for example, has insisted that she never fooled anyone, citing studies by her experts published in scientific journals – a defense that conveniently ignores the company’s many public messages that cast doubt on climate science. A similar lie persists today with the hazy ads from oil companies celebrating all the wonderful technologies they are developing to be part of the Solution to climate change, a theme CEOs are sure to stress in their opening statements.

Meanwhile, some of the victims of Big Oil’s lies offer their own eloquent testimony across Pennsylvania Avenue. Outside the White House, five young climate activists, aged 18-26, entered the ninth day of a hunger-strike in a desperate plea for their government to avoid the hellish future that awaits them.

These young people are afraid and angry, and they have every right to be. The companies that put them in this position owe them and all of us a deep apology and reparation for the horrendous damage they have caused.


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