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Washington Watch: Exxon, Chevron and rest of Big Oil ‘greenwash’ climate efforts and plan to pump more, Democrats say in new report

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Major oil and gas companies show little intention of concrete action to transition away from atmosphere-warming oil and gas and toward more solar, wind, hydrogen and other alternative energy options despite what they may say publicly.

That’s a charge advanced Friday by Democrats on the U.S. House Oversight Committee who have issued a new report that used “millions” of data inputs, including internal documents from the energy sector. The assertion was repeated in comments by a leader of that effort, Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat of California. Khanna released report insights and spoke to NBC News exclusively.

The committee says Shell
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Chevron
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BP
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and trade group the American Petroleum Institute have all made major investments recently in projects that would “protect and entrench the use of fossil fuels
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long past the timeline that scientists say would be safe to prevent catastrophic climate change” and despite making climate pledges.

For the most part, the companies have been transparent in detailing production plans, which can take years to finance and permit.

The United Nations, calling out rich nations and the private sector, has been critical of the slow early movement toward halving global emissions by 2030 and flipping to net-zero emissions by 2050. The U.N. and others have said it will take a broad effort to slow global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and thwart the worst of deadly and expensive climate disasters.

The oil and gas industry “is basically saying, ‘we’re going to increase production, we’re going to increase emissions, but we’re also going to be able to claim being this clean tech company, this green company, because we can take some symbolic actions that make it look like we’re in the climate fight,’” Khanna said, speaking with NBC.

“The cynicism was breathtaking, and unfortunately, it was quite successful,” he continued, “It’s been a successful PR strategy.”

The committee’s Democratic members all signed on to the report, which followed a year-plus investigation, but no Republicans put their name on it.

At an October hearing on the matter, Rep. James Comer, a Republican of Kentucky, said the investigation was “to deliver partisan theater for prime-time news.”

The report also alleges that the companies intentionally misled the public about their plans and also attempted to “obstruct the committee’s investigation and withhold key documents,” according to NBC’s assessment of the report.

MarketWatch requested a copy of the report.

Internal documents also showed oil executives privately admitting that divesting, or moving around the accountability of emissions, will not have a meaningful impact on overall emissions levels. “What exactly are we supposed to do instead of divesting … pour concrete over the oil sands and burn the deed to the land so no one can buy them?” one media relations person at Shell wrote in an email to a colleague, according to the NBC report. 

“It was like pulling teeth,” Khanna said of the committee’s efforts. Exxon Mobil
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blacked out complete pages of its documents and the right-leaning Chamber of Commerce withheld internal documents, according to the NBC report.

Democrats at the time of the October hearing said Big Oil was soon to have its “tobacco moment,” a reference to charges of hidden cancer data by the cigarette industry that was eventually exposed.

Read more: Democrats compare oil companies’ climate change response to tobacco-cancer denial

Republicans at the same October committee meeting stressed their view that withholding U.S.-generated energy sources, including natural gas
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will only cut U.S. jobs, risk U.S. security because of tenuous relationships with gas-giant Russia and certain Middle East governments, and drive up gasoline
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and home-heating costs at a time when global markets are experiencing a crisis of energy supply — all while demand is increasing. The GOP members also used the hearing to repeat calls for tougher emissions expectations for China and India, which along with the U.S., round out the top three global polluters.

At least two Republican members noted a group of Democratic lawmakers and President Biden had urged OPEC to keep the oil spigot open to hold down costs, a position these committee members said was in marked contrast to the committee leadership insisting that U.S. sources of oil and gas be shut off to meet U.S. emissions targets.

Exxon Mobil and Chevron recently disclosed plans to increase investment in oil projects. Both have also expanded investment in alternative energy, including Chevron’s deal, announced in October, for development of clean-burning green hydrogen.

But according to internal documents released to NBC News as part of the report, oil companies still forecast sizable returns on their fossil fuel investments. Further, they have come under scrutiny for pushing stock dividends and buybacks over reinvestment.

One internal document from Chevron touts up to a $200 billion return over the next 40 years after upscaling oil production off the coast of Australia.

Chevron was asked to comment on the committee release. It referred to publicly available production plans, including details traditional energy extraction with lower-carbon intensity. A message was left with Exxon for its response to the report.

API, meanwhile, issued this response to the Friday release: “Our industry is focused on continuing to produce affordable, reliable energy while tackling the climate challenge, and any allegations to the contrary are false,” said API Senior Vice President Megan Bloomgren.

API and other backers of the U.S. natural gas and oil industry stress that changes to date have already contributed to the progress the U.S. has made in reducing America’s CO2 emissions to near generational lows. That’s largely from the replacement of coal with the increased use of natural gas

“We are poised to be a leader in the next generation of low carbon technologies, including CCUS [carbon capture utilization and storage] and hydrogen — technologies widely recognized to be critical to meet the world’s emissions reduction targets,” Bloomgren said.

The report hits after Democrats lost control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, and with it the ability to direct House Oversight investigations. Democrats did maintain a narrow Senate majority.

Khanna told NBC the millions of documents acquired by the committee will be handed over to those with more resources who can act on the information. And he suggested dogged pursuit is the only way to push for more transparency and accountability, given that oil data has been “misleading the American public for 40 years.”

Kathy Mulvey, the accountability campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, expressed her belief that the report could apply pressure.

“New evidence released today further confirms what we know to be true—the companies and trade associations under investigation have followed a well-established playbook that includes greenwashing with misleading or outright false claims about their climate-related actions,” she said.

“The reports and internal documents released today underscore the importance of continued scrutiny of fossil fuel industry malfeasance,” she added. “Congress, the Biden administration, public prosecutors, investors all have a role to play.” 

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