By Matt Egan and Ella Nilsen, CNN
House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney announced at the end of Thursday’s hearing with top executives from the fossil fuel industry that she plans to subpoena the oil companies and trade groups for key documents related to their conduct around the climate crisis.
Her announcement came after executives from ExxonMobil, BP America, Chevron, Shell Oil, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce, testified in front of Congress for the first time about their role in climate disinformation.
Maloney said that while the companies and trade groups did provide many documents that were publicly available, they did not supply “a substantial portion of the key documents the committee requested.”
“We are at code red for climate and I committed to doing everything I can to help rescue this planet and save it for our children,” the New York Democrat said during her closing remarks. “We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas we will.”
Specifically, Maloney said the oil companies have not produced “detailed funding information” the lawmakers requested to understand their “payments to shadow groups,” public relations firms and others. Other documents requested include corporate strategies around climate change and internal documents and communications from senior executives about their companies’ role in the climate crisis.
“I have tried very hard to obtain this information voluntarily, but the oil companies employ the same tactics they used for decades on climate policy: delay and obstruction,” Maloney said.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who chairs the committee’s Subcommittee on the Environment, told CNN later Thursday that he and Maloney had decided during the middle of the fossil fuel hearing to subpoena the companies.
“It wasn’t the plan that we were going to do that,” Khanna told CNN. “We’re very cautious to issue a subpoena, and we hadn’t issued any subpoenas up until now.”
Khanna said he and Maloney had huddled and made the decision 20 to 30 minutes before she made the announcement at the end of the hearing, with the congressman calling the decision “very significant.”
Khanna, who said there’s a chance lawmakers will call the CEOs back to testify again, added that the committee’s fossil fuel disinformation investigation could take six months.
The committee’s investigation has been ongoing for about three months. Lawmakers particularly want to know more about the companies’ more recent activities, from 2015 to the present, including their presence and ads on social media.
During the hearing, committee members pressed the executives about their knowledge of the climate crisis, the role fossil fuels have played in it and their desire to put profits over a climate solution.
An undercover video released this summer appeared to show former ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy admitting the company “aggressively” fought climate policy and the science behind it. Maloney played the video during the hearing.
“Our witnesses today would like you to think that their actions I have laid out and put in the record are ancient history, but they’re not,” Maloney said.
Khanna urged US oil giants ExxonMobil and Chevron to follow in the footsteps of their European rivals in planning to cut production to address the climate crisis.
“Are you embarrassed as an American company that your production is going up while European counterparts are going down?” Khanna asked Chevron CEO Michael Wirth.
The Chevron boss responded by pointing out that demand for energy is going up around the world.
Khanna cited calls from the United Nations and the International Energy Agency to cut oil and gas production to save the planet. When Khanna asked if Chevron would commit to lowering production, Wirth declined to do so.
“With all due respect, I’m very proud of our company and what we do,” Wirth said.
Democrats took turns pressing the executives for specific answers about their role in the climate crisis and the disinformation surrounding it. Several of them said the executives should resign.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, said that the companies “hide” behind front groups that lobby public opinion against clean energy.
“When you look at these ads, they don’t say the name ‘Exxon,’ ‘BP,’ ‘Chevron’ anywhere,” Tlaib said. “Y’all hide and you deceive the public.”
Republicans on the committee questioned the legitimacy of the hearing, saying they should instead focus on the Biden administration’s energy policies and the progress that the US has already made to reduce emissions.
Republican Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana — whose constituents face some of the highest flooding risk in the country — delivered a fervent defense of oil executives.
“It’s abhorrent my colleagues across the aisle have called a so-called hearing today to demonize American industry whose products make modern life possible,” Higgins said, later adding: “It’s insane what my colleagues across the aisle are putting these good American men and women through and attacking American workers as our country dissolves around us. You push patriots too far; you’ve gone a bridge too far. We won’t take it anymore.”
Higgins represents an area very vulnerable to climate change impacts. Cameron Parish in southwest Louisiana — which is part of Higgins’ district — is the most vulnerable county in the US to flood risk, according to a recent nationwide flooding analysis by nonprofit research and technology group First Street.
Fossil fuel companies used their time to focus on their commitment to solving the climate crisis, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and to emphasize the steps they are taking to lower emissions.
“Exxon does not, and never has, spread disinformation regarding climate change,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said in his prepared remarks. “Its public statements about climate change are, and have been, truthful, fact-based, transparent and consistent with the views of the broader, mainstream scientific community at the time.”
Wirth, Chevron’s CEO, said the idea this his company is spreading misinformation about the climate crisis is “simply wrong.” Wirth said Chevron accepts that “climate change is real, and the use of fossil fuels contributes to it.”
But when Khanna asked the executives to tell the American Petroleum Institute and other groups to stop lobbying against electric vehicles and methane regulations — two initiatives the oil companies themselves support — he was met with silence.
“You could do something here,” said Khanna. “You can tell them to knock it off for the sake of the planet. You could end that lobbying. Would any of you take that opportunity to look at API and say ‘stop it?'”
The committee room fell silent.
“Any of you?” he asked. “Could you commit? Any of you?”
No CEO responded to Khanna’s question.
This story has been updated with further developments Thursday.
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CNN’s René Marsh and Devan Cole contributed to this report.