Big Oil is getting subpoenaed

The House Oversight Committee will issue subpoenas to oil companies for documents detailing their role in spreading climate misinformation.


The CEOs of Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP revealed very little about their company’s past and current efforts to spread climate misinformation and delay climate policy during today’s six-hour hearing before the House Oversight Committee.

So, at the very end of the historic hearing, committee chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) announced she will issue subpoenas to the oil companies—as well as the American Petroleum Institute and Chamber of Commerce—for internal documents detailing their role in worsening the climate crisis.

The subpoena announcement makes good on a threat Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) issued in July, after a secretly-recorded video showed an Exxon lobbyist admitting the company joins “shadow groups” to stop climate policy. In that video, the now-former lobbyist also bragged that Exxon had successfully lobbied Democratic and Republic Senators to remove climate provisions from the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The subpoenas announced today will force Big Oil to provide information on companies’ payments to “shadow groups” that promote climate denial, Maloney said, as well as payments to “over 150 public relations companies” that may help the companies spread climate misinformation.

The subpoenas will also seek funding information for Big Oil’s social media advertisements, and “board materials the committee needs to examine corporate strategies on climate change.” HEATED has extensively covered Big Oil’s social media and news advertisements, as well as corporate strategies on climate change. (We published our latest story on this yesterday).

“I have tried very hard to obtain this information voluntarily,” Maloney said. “But the oil companies employ the same tactics they used for decades on climate policy: delay and obstruction.” She said the oil companies missed multiple deadlines for information requested by the committee, only to provide them with thousands of unrelated, publicly-available documents at the last minute.

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. James Comer (R-KY), quickly issued a formal objection to the subpoenas. “The oil and gas executives here today have provided over 100,000 pages of documents,” he said. “We feel that’s an infringement on their First Amendment rights.”

But Maloney said the quantity of documents did not matter, because they were not what the committee had asked for. “We are at code red for climate, and I am committed to doing everything I can to help rescue this planet and help save it for our children,” she said. “We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas, we will.

If successful, the subpoenas could provide useful evidence for some of the dozens of ongoing lawsuits seeking to hold oil companies financially accountable for climate change damages. These lawsuits are similar to those that held Big Tobacco responsible for the health consequences of cigarettes, and financially crippled the industry.

But if today’s hearing was any indication, Republicans on the committee will fight tooth and nail to stop anything that could represent a threat to Big Oil. So this is likely far from over.

Here’s the full statement Maloney made at the end of today’s hearing—transcribed quickly, so forgive any typos.

I was grateful to hear the top fossil fuel CEOs finally admit that climate change is real, that burning fossil fuels is causing it, and that we must act urgently to fix it. But I was disappointed that we also heard much of the same denial and deflection we have heard before.

Today’s witnesses refused to take responsibility for Big Oil’s decades-long disinformation campaign. And even after agreeing that we are, in fact, in “code red” crisis, they refused to stop funding groups like the American Petroleum Institute that are still blocking reforms like expanding the use of electric vehicles.

So I see no choice but to continue our committee’s investigation until we see the truth. We requested documents from each of these companies six weeks ago which were due on September 30. We followed up before the due date to identify categories of documents that were of particular importance to be produced quickly.

After they missed the deadline, we sent warning letters to all six companies urging them to complete their productions by October 25, or face further action. Unfortunately, none of the six entities have produced a substantial portion of they key documents the committee requested.

Instead, they produced reams of other documents, many of which were publicly available. One entity sent in 1,500 pages printed from their own website, available publicly along with 4,000 pages of newsletters filled with industry press releases. Others sent us thousands of pages of publicly available annual reports and the company’s postings on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Now, let me tell you what the fossil fuel companies have not produced. These organizations have not produced the detailed funding information that we requested and that we need to understand their payments to shadow groups, and to over 150 public relations companies and advertisements on social media—payments that today’s witnesses seem intent on continuing. Nearly all the companies have failed to turn over board materials the committee needs to examine corporate strategies on climate change. With only a few limited exceptions, the fossil fuel companies have not produced any internal documents or internal communications from senior executives about their company’s role in climate change.

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.

Well, that ends today. I am formally notifying the Ranking Member and members of the committee that I intend to issue subpoenas to the fossil fuel entities represented here today. I have draft subpoenas here.

Please know that I do not take this step lightly. When Republic Dan Burton was chairman of this committee, he issued more than 1,000 subpoenas without a single complaint from my Republican colleagues. I have been much more selective, but we are at code red for climate, and I am committed to doing everything I can to help rescue this planet and help save it for our children.

We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign, and with these subpoenas, we will.

We’ll have more on the hearing in next week’s issue. Until then, have a great Halloweekend.