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Oil companies ‘could doom global efforts’ around climate change, House committee finds

A report issued Friday by the House Oversight Committee said oil companies had “greenwashed” their public image while continuing to invest in fossil fuels.
Photo illustration of a person pumping gas, traffic on a highway, a smokestack with dark fumes billowing from it, falling $100 dollar bills, and various snippets of documents detailing profits made by fossil fuel companies.
A new report from the House Oversight committee found the oil industry misled the public about its clean energy efforts.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

Major oil and gas companies have little intention of taking concrete actions to transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy solutions despite their public efforts to be seen as working to address climate change, according to a report released Friday by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee.

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

“They’re 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,’” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a member of the committee. 

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

The committee’s Democratic members all signed on to the report, but no Republicans put their name on it.

When reached for comment, a press representative for the Republicans on the committee pointed to statements Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., made during a hearing in October in which he said the investigation was “to deliver partisan theater for prime-time news.”

According to internal documents released to NBC News as part of the report, oil companies forecast sizable returns on their fossil fuel investments. 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.

Exxon Mobil and Chevron recently disclosed plans to increase investment in oil projects.

The companies mentioned in the report did not return requests for comment.

The report also found that the companies intentionally misled the public about their plans and also attempted to “obstruct the Committee’s investigation and withhold key documents.”

“These documents demonstrate how the fossil fuel industry ‘greenwashed’ its public image with promises and actions that oil and gas executives knew would not meaningfully reduce emissions, even as the industry moved aggressively to lock in continued fossil fuel production for decades to come — actions that could doom global efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change,” the committee wrote in 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. 

The report went further to say that the big oil companies have avoided accountability and obstructed the committee’s investigation, which was originally launched in September 2021, after not complying with subpoenas for documents issued by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y, the chair of the committee.

“It was like pulling teeth,” Khanna said. Exxon blacked out complete pages of its documents and the Chamber of Commerce withheld internal documents, and the report did not provide any reasons for the redactions.

The report comes after Democrats lost control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, and with it the ability to direct House Oversight investigations. Khanna said the millions of documents acquired by the committee will be handed over to those with more resources who can act on the information.

“That’s the only way we’re going to have accountability,” he said. “You can’t expect a House subcommittee to go up against oil companies that have been misleading American public for 40 years and all of a sudden have accountability.