Lawmakers investigate Big Tobacco perjury ahead of Big Oil showdown

In April 1994, seven top tobacco CEOs told Congress they didn’t think nicotine was addictive. Two years later, they were all under federal investigation for potentially lying under oath and not anymore at the head of their struggling cigarette companies.

Democrats believe oil industry and trade association leaders who appear tomorrow in a high-profile hearing on climate change misinformation could meet a similar fate.

“The evidence is so compelling that they’re really going to have a strong choice,” said Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Whose oversight subcommittee is organizing the event. “Do they risk getting close to the line, committing perjury, and following the path of the tobacco rulers?” Or do they do a full mea culpa and admit all the wrongdoing and commit to change?

But the current political landscape could make it more difficult for Khanna and the Chair of the Oversight and Reform Committee, Carolyn Maloney (DN.Y.) to have the same rapid impact as their counterparts almost three decades ago, according to reports. Congress experts.

Maloney and Khanna, whose perjury warning came on a call this week with political action group Our Revolution, will face challenges related to the unusual nature of the event. While they plan to preside over the hearing behind the imposing courtroom canopy, no witnesses will be seated at the table below them.

Due to remote hearing rules instituted at the start of the pandemic, executives of Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., BP America Inc., Shell Oil Co., the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chamber of Commerce will all testify from a distance. This is despite the fact that both the API and the House are based in Washington (Daily E&E, October 25).

Democrats initially asked officials to appear in person. But the Republicans on the committee opposed it, to accuse the majority of treating leaders differently from other recent witnesses “just because Democrats don’t like them or don’t want to take a picture.”

The hybrid format is likely to affect more than the optics. For starters, it could ease the pressure on industry witnesses.

“It’s quite a different situation, isn’t it, testifying in your office or somewhere with your team around you rather than under lights and cameras, in front of a live audience?” Said Geoffrey Supran, associate researcher at Harvard University.

Digital complications could also make it more difficult for Democrats to effectively cross-examine leaders within the time limit allowed by the rules of Congress.

“There will be delays and you talk to someone and then they didn’t hear the previous thing, then the time is up,” said Supran, who has researched the history of climate policy and met with members. Oversight staff preparing for the hearing. “I certainly don’t think it will be a walk in the park.”

Then after the event, it may be more difficult than in the past for the revelations to reverberate widely, experts say. That’s because America’s news ecosystem has become increasingly fragmented, with a proliferation of partisan cable news channels and social media echo chambers.

“You wonder if there really are a lot of people whose opinion would be changed in one way or another by anything that emerges from the investigation,” said Michael Stern, a former Republican congressional attorney. who wrote a case study of the tobacco survey. “People who support Democrats will believe the worst oil company, and people who oppose it will not care.”

‘Right in front of you’

Executives of oil companies in 2010, from left to right, the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. Rex Tillerson, Chief Executive Officer of Chevron Corp. John Watson, ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva, Shell Oil Co. Chairman Marvin Odum, and BP America Chairman and Chairman Lamar McKay testify on Capitol Hill in defense of fossil fuel tax breaks. | AP Photo / Haraz N. Ghanbari

Oil and gas CEOs – whose companies provide the fuel, heat, and power that millions of Americans rely on – are also likely to be more difficult to vilify than cigarette bosses.

“There is no redeeming argument to be made for tobacco. It is clearly the leading cause of preventable death and disease,” said former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Who has conducted the 1994 hearing and spoke with Khanna. before tomorrow’s event.

“Oil and other fossil fuels are part of our energy supply, on which we depend for the good of our economy,” he told E&E News. “But for the sake of our planet, we need to get away from it.

“What I think Congressman Khanna needs to do is show that the internal discussions led by some people in the oil industry [aimed] to continue to mislead and deny the facts of what they were trying to do, which is to deny that there was a link between fossil fuels and climate change, ”Waxman said. The main driver of global warming is the combustion of oil, gas and coal. .

It may be difficult for Khanna to achieve this tomorrow. In calling for our revolution, the chairman of the environment subcommittee said the witnesses “were not very cooperative in producing documents.”

“We are prepared with a lot of evidence,” he said, but it is all “frankly in the public domain”.

If history is any guide, that could possibly change.

Waxman recalled how, after tobacco executives claimed they didn’t think nicotine was addictive, “people in the industry began to come forward to say they knew better.” The former vice president of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. Jeffrey Wigand, for example, did not publicly disclose how the company manipulated the nicotine levels in its cigarettes until a 1996 interview with the television show “60 Minutes.”

It’s also difficult to immediately know which moments in a one-hour hearing will be important in the long run.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Who in 1994 was a junior member of Waxman’s energy and trade subcommittee, said he had only asked tobacco executives to vote on the nicotine because he had realized that no one else had.

“It really led to the $ 250 billion tax settlement with Medicaid, which means millions of people have received health care because this question has been asked,” he told reporters yesterday.

“Sometimes the question that really opens it is simple,” Wyden said. “It’s really right in front of you.”

Journalist Nick Sobczyk contributed.

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