Ro Khanna's quest to expose Big Oil
The Congressman leading the House Oversight investigation into Big Oil reflects on this past year's triumphs and struggles.
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Hurricane Fiona is on a deadly rampage through the Caribbean, and the horrors may be only beginning. The storm has knocked out electricity and clean water service for more than 4 million people in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic; is pummeling the British-owned Turks and Caicos islands as a Category 3 hurricane; and is expected to strengthen once more before hitting Bermuda on Friday.
But also, the Queen died! Have you heard that the Queen died?
I can’t, for legal reasons, say U.S. cable news cares more about a British woman’s funeral than the suffering of Americans. But I can say the tweets containing this perception speak to a larger problem. The fact is, it is still very difficult to get television news networks to tell climate change stories—especially ones that place the blame on fossil fuels. Hurricane Fiona is not the only recent example.
The House Oversight Committee’s ongoing investigation into Big Oil, and its role in misleading the American public about climate change, is another. This is an objectively big-deal climate accountability story with major potential repercussions for the fossil fuel industry. Last week, there was a big development in the investigation: the committee released a trove of documents obtained through subpoenas issued to Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute. Those documents, the New York Times reported, “show that oil industry executives privately downplayed their companies’ own public messages about efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and weakened industry-wide commitments to push for climate policies.”
According to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who is leading the investigation with committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), it’s been tough to get television news to cover this—but not because it’s not an important story. “I've been told by bookers who have me on their television shows that climate is hard to get ratings for,” he told HEATED in an extensive interview about the investigation. “They say climate is a tough thing to cover on television.”
Khanna declined to name the specific networks or producers that have told him this, but said it was a sentiment he’s encountered frequently in the last year when trying to get media coverage. Though the committee’s October hearing with Big Oil executives garnered 41 minutes of combined coverage on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, he said, follow-ups have been difficult.
Television news networks were “very close to covering the documents,” Khanna said, but didn’t. “The timing, I think, was difficult with the Queen's passing and all that was going on.”
So Khanna is vying for attention from other sources. In our interview, we discussed the investigation’s challenges—from media coverage, to the fierce backlash from Republicans and the oil industry, as well as resistance from some Democratic colleagues. We also talked about the successes of the last year, where the investigation goes from here, and what interested citizens can do to help.
A transcript of our interview, edited for e-mail length, is below the jump. For the full interview, you can listen to the podcast file I’ll be sending out later today. Enjoy!
Emily Atkin: It's been one year since you and Congresswoman Maloney launched the House Oversight Committee investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to spread disinformation about climate change. What has that year accomplished so far?
Rep. Ro Khanna: The hearings have been historic. A lot of other people had tried to get the oil company executives [to testify before Congress] before, and they had not succeeded because they didn't threaten subpoena power. We did, and the oil companies were in front of our committee for almost 6 hours.
The hearing [with oil executives] clearly established that the oil companies had misled America and the world about the impacts of climate change for decades. But what I think is more striking, and more unfortunate, is that the culture of these companies has not changed much. Instead of having introspection about their past mistakes, they were defensive about it. They were unwilling to criticize anything that their company did.
And then the hearings last week showed us that they're continuing to mislead. They're continuing to laugh at those who take climate science seriously. They're continuing to greenwash their actions. They're talking to industry groups [in private] about not committing to the Paris Accord, even though publicly they're saying they're for the Paris Accord. It just goes to the culture of these companies. They still are denying the seriousness of climate. They still think it’s a laughing matter.
EA: These hearings have been likened to the hearings 30 years ago on whether Big Tobacco misled the American public about the health effects of cigarettes. Those hearings led to litigation by the Justice Department which resulted in restitution to the public of about $10 billion. I assume that the purpose of these hearings is to raise public support for a similar type of litigation, and also to provide evidence to ongoing legal attempts to hold the industry accountable. What new evidence has the oversight committee uncovered that could aid in these legal attempts to hold the industry accountable?
RK: I think it'll have a huge evidentiary record of the industry's deception and misleading practices. We will have the testimony of these oil executives, where they are defending statements that are indefensible. Like where the Exxon CEO said “No one has ever in the past misled the country,” but then doesn't have an explanation for why past CEOs said that burning fossil fuels hasn't caused climate change.
We're also going to release an explosive report documenting and detailing everything sometime in October. We're going to have even more documents, even more shocking than what's already been released. And that report will be looked at by a lot of people who have an interest in holding Big Oil accountable.
EA: During the Big Tobacco hearings, Congress was able to get tobacco company CEOs to testify in person. In this case, the Big Oil CEOs had to testify remotely because of COVID protocols. What do you think was the effect of having to have them testify over Zoom instead of in the room?
RK: I wish they were in person. I think the Zoom allowed them to hide a bit.
I'll tell you a moment which I think would have been very powerful in person. I showed that The American Petroleum Institute was running disingenuous ads against every member of Congress who was for a methane fee. At the time, some of these CEOs had come out and said “We’re fine with a methane fee, we support doing something on climate.” So I read what the American Petroleum Institute was doing, and I said, “Do you condemn this?” And everyone said, “Yes, we condemn it.” And then I said, Who is willing now to say that they will withdraw their funds from API if they don’t pull these ads? Not a single hand went up. And it was sort of pin drop silence.
If that had happened in a live room with the CEOs–them staring at each other, not raising their hand, basically saying “We're going to still fund this group that we know is doing something wrong,” that would have been a powerful moment and gotten more attention. And my sense is that had it been in-person, a number of networks would have covered it live, and that would have exposed the oil industry in a bigger way.
EA: Speaking of the networks and the coverage of the hearings, I wonder what your assessment of the media coverage of these hearings has been. Are you happy with it?
RK: No. There hasn't been enough. And it's a challenge, because I've been told by bookers who have me on their television shows that climate is hard to get ratings for. So we tried to frame this as not just about climate, but about companies lying to the American people. And there was some interest; we got a lot of print coverage. But it was hard, candidly, to break in on television.
EA: So you're telling me bookers actually said, “it's going to be tough because the ratings don't work for climate change stories?”
RK: Yeah. In private, they do. They say climate is a tough thing to cover on television. They liked that this wasn't just about climate, but about exposing an industry that was misleading people. They thought the angle of Big Oil companies making record profits and still not having any relief for ordinary Americans could be something of interest. But climate is hard sell. And that is a challenge for those of us who care deeply about it.
EA: I've heard that excuse many times. But I think people are very interested in the accountability side, in naming an actual villain.
RK: In candor, we had a couple of networks very close to covering the hearing when it was virtual, and a couple of networks very close to covering the documents we released [last week]. But the timing, I think, was difficult with the Queen's passing and all that was going on.
EA: Oh, yeah. The Queen's passing definitely takes precedence over the oil industry lying about climate change.
RK: But I’m hopeful the October report will break through on television. Because there are so many ordinary Americans, particularly people over 50, who still get their news by television. And that's really the oil companies’ strategy, to take the blows and move on and hope it doesn't penetrate the popular consciousness.
EA: I have to ask you this, otherwise I wouldn't be doing my job well. Which networks didn't cover the hearing because of the Queen's death or because climate change doesn't get ratings?
RK: I can’t tell you that on the record. And the reason is partly because they may cover it in October and I don’t want to be negative with them. But at least they were considering it. So it's almost positive that they were considering it.
EA: You give them way more credit than I do. But I get it.
EA: I feel like another reason it might be tough to get TV coverage for these hearings is because holding the fossil fuel industry accountable is very triggering for a lot of people on the right of the political spectrum. At least in the Big Tobacco hearings, there was some Republican buy-in that perhaps tobacco companies misled people. It doesn't seem that there is any buy-in from your Republican colleagues that the fossil fuel industry has done anything harmful to humanity.
RK: No. If you look at all the Republican statements in the beginning of the hearing with oil executives, it's like a tribute to the oil executives. Their statements are as laudatory as the statements you're now hearing about the Queen. It was staggering. Not one of them said, “Well, maybe you need to have some accountability. Maybe you need to own up to the past. Maybe you need to have some compensation for the lies.”
They make it about this so-called “War on energy.” But as I said to my Republican colleagues, how can it be a war on energy when Exxon profits are up $20 billion? It’s an awfully ineffective war. And the other point is, no one is saying that the world suddenly, as of today, doesn't need fossil fuels. You can have the view that we need to move towards renewable energy and still need fossil fuels, while still believing that the fossil fuel companies should not have lied.
So it's impossible to have a thoughtful conversation. They basically just say, “Oh, you don't want any fossil fuels.” No, we’re saying we want to move the world to zero emissions and we want to move towards as much renewable energy as possible. What we're saying is these companies shouldn't be lying to the American public.
EA: Is there anybody on the other side of the aisle who is willing to have an adult conversation about this?
RK: There are people in the Republican Party who are willing to have an adult conversation about climate. But it is about as difficult and dangerous for a Republican to call out Big Oil today as it is for a Republican to call out Donald Trump. Just as cutting corporate taxes is part of the Republican mantra, standing up for Big Oil has become part of the mantra. So even people who you can have a thoughtful conversation about climate with, and who may agree that we've got to do more in terms of building batteries and electric vehicles, are going to be very reluctant to do anything that is going to villainize or hold accountable Big Oil.
EA: The Republicans appear united on that approach. But in the Democratic Party, it seems there are some members who are willing to be very bullish about holding the fossil fuel industry accountable, and others who are less so. Does the Democratic Party need to be more united on climate change?
RK: I think we have some unity on the need for incentives to build clean technology in America. We need much more urgency in scale. Just having tax credits isn't enough–we actually need federal financing. But we're even scared of that because of the Solyndra example in 2012.
There is consensus that we need to do something. There is not consensus that we have to hold accountable those people who got us into this mess. There was consensus in the Democratic Party that we had to name Big Pharma in what they were doing to rip off Americans. There was consensus post-2008 that we had to name some of the Big Banks and what they did to cause the Wall Street crash. There is less consensus in the party that we have to name Big Oil and what they're doing to rip off Americans at the pump, and what they're did to lie about climate change.
And it’s a hard thing to do! There were frivolous complaints against me and Carolyn Maloney when we did this. Articles get slanted against you if you’re going to do something like this. So you’re putting a big dot on your back, and becoming a target for a very powerful industry, and people are reluctant to do that.
EA: You mentioned that you experienced negative consequences for going after the oil industry. Can you talk about that a bit?
RK: Yeah, there were a couple articles planted about us using outside resources for hearings, which we didn't, and frivolous ethics complaints which didn't go anywhere. There were articles looking at all of my donors, articles going as far as looking at my wife who had independent investment assets before marriage.
Look, that's politics. Those things happen. But the point is, when you go out and take on an industry like this and you’re public about it, they're going to punch back. There are a lot of people who don’t want to be punched back. It’s easiest to just kind of go along, get along, not build enemies. And unfortunately, a lot of times that's the way to rise up in Washington.
EA: I have two more short questions for you. The first I almost hate asking because it’s horse-racey in nature. But I do think it's important to know: what will the future of this investigation and the committee’s attempts to hold the oil industry accountable look like if Democrats lose the House?
RK: Well, this is why I'm really putting a lot of stock in the documents we’re releasing in October. We want to get everything wrapped up this term. I'm optimistic and hopeful that we will keep Congress. But politics is unpredictable. And so I think we will get this work done, and once it’s done, depending on the House, we have allies in the Senate. I've worked very closely with Sheldon Whitehouse, who has really been the champion early on on dark money. And I'll continue to work with him, with Senator Sanders and Senator Warren on funding issues.
EA: There's a lot of people in the climate activist community who read my newsletter, and the biggest question I get from them is, “what can I do?” What could they do to help your efforts?
RK: On a very basic level, they can help by sharing some of the documents that we're discovering, and help share the lies that these oil companies have told us. Social media is very, very powerful, and grassroots organizing is very powerful. So they can help get the story out.
They can also continue to demand that Congress prioritize climate and prioritize holding people accountable. We would have never had the Inflation Reduction Act and $300 billion for climate if it weren't for Sunrise, if it wasn't for Food and Water Watch, if it wasn't for the Sierra Club and the NRDC and the League of Conservation Voters and all of the environmental groups saying climate has to be the highest priority.
That's really what it's going to take: a people-centered mobilization around climate. You saw that with Occupy Wall Street which led to Dodd-Frank. You're seeing that with the Inflation Reduction Act. The difference is this is just step one. We have so much more to do on climate.
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