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1 big thing: Takeaways from the Big Oil hearing

Darren Woods, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, speaks via videoconference during a House committee hearing on Oct. 28, 2021. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Thursday’s six-hour-plus House questioning of Big Oil execs about their history of lobbying and climate change disinformation tactics produced fireworks, but the real impact of the inquiry will take a long time to unspool, Andrew writes.

Catch up fast: The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is conducting an investigation into how much the fossil fuel industry knew about the dangers its products pose to the climate, and the funding of groups to mount climate misinformation campaigns.

Our thought bubble: The hearing, featuring the top executives of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell, did not score a knockout punch against the oil and gas industry for allegedly misleading the public about climate science, but it produced breadcrumbs for investigators to follow.

  • To that end, Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the committee chair, announced her intention at the end of the hearing to seek two subpoenas, one that would focus on companies' funding of outside groups and knowledge of their activities.
  • The other would take aim at executives' past statements and awareness of climate science research.

What they're saying: Asked why the subpoenas are needed when documents are already in the public domain from state and local lawsuits and investigative reporting, Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who chairs the subcommittee on the environment, told Axios they were prompted by the categorical nature of CEO responses during the hearing.

  • "The claim that they have never said anything wrong or that was inconsistent with the science at the time... is such a strong claim that it will be very hard to defend," Khanna said Thursday night, referring to a claim from ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods.

CEOs refused to pledge to stop lobbying against legislation that would reduce emissions.

  • None was willing to say that they would stop funding trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute that lobby against greenhouse emissions reductions, or tell such organizations to stop running ads.
  • "They missed an opportunity to look like they were part of the solution [to climate change]," Khanna told Axios.

Democrats and Republicans sparred over the First Amendment, with Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former constitutional law professor, asking each executive if they agreed with legal rulings that fraudulent speech is not protected under the First Amendment. (Each demurred.)

ExxonMobil's Woods was so definitive in his denials of wrongdoing that it's possible that out of the four who testified, he and his company will be most closely scrutinized in the next stage of the inquiry.

  • For example, Woods said: "I don't believe companies should lie. And I would tell you that we do not do that."
  • He also said a 1997 statement casting doubt on human-caused climate change by Exxon's then-chief executive was "entirely consistent" with the science at the time.
  • However, a United Nations climate panel's report two years earlier had concluded the world is warming and human emissions are the main cause.

2. The state of Democrats' tentative climate deal

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democrats have unveiled specifics about their draft climate and social spending plan, but its path forward is pretty vague, Ben and Andrew write.

Catch up fast: TheWhite House announced a "framework" Thursday morning with $555 billion in clean energy and climate investments. A nearly 1,700-page House draft emerged hours later.

Why it matters: The package of spending and tax incentives — if approved in something resembling its current form — would be by far the most sweeping climate bill in U.S. history.

  • The provisions would do a lot to put the U.S. on a path toward meeting President Biden's goal of a 50% cut in domestic emissions by 2030.

What we don't know: It's unclear how Democrats will navigate trying to pass their plan on a party-line vote and the bipartisan infrastructure deal.

  • House progressives held up the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal, given how many of their social program priorities were whittled down or eliminated from the framework entirely. But they have endorsed the overall framework agreement.
  • The timing has international repercussions. The lack of votes Thursday night raises the odds that President Biden will participate in the COP26 summit in Glasgow early next week without having enacted his legislative climate agenda, which would weaken U.S. credibility at a critical moment. 
  • However, it may be approved during the two-week negotiations, which might restore some U.S. leverage.

The big picture: The plan has all kinds of provisions aimed at speeding up the deployment of zero-carbon power, electric vehicles, hydrogen and carbon capture and removal tech, efficient buildings and more.

  • Per the White House summary, there are $320 billion in various clean energy tax incentives. S&P Global Market Intelligence has a rundown.
  • Bloomberg has details over the tentative compromise on oil-and-gas industry methane emissions, which blends new financial support to cut methane and penalties.

Bonus: Detroit's win in the draft climate plan

The House draft provides a major expansion of EV purchase incentives, including a measure that allow credits that are $4,500 larger — totaling $12,500 — for union-made EVs.

Why it matters: Via The Detroit News, "that would be a boon to the Detroit Three automakers over Tesla Inc. and foreign auto producers whose U.S.-based workforces are not members of the United Auto Workers or other unions."

3. China's reality check ahead of COP26

Global carbon dioxide emissions from energy use
Data: BP; Note: Shows emissions from consumption of oil, gas and coal for combustion-related activities and natural gas flaring; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

Hopes for a breakthrough with Chinese leaders are hanging by a thread just two days before the UN climate summit, but the story's not over yet, Ben writes.

Catch up fast: China, in a long-awaited new submission to the UN yesterday, declined to speed up its existing pledge to reach peak carbon emissions before 2030.

Why it matters: China's by far the world's biggest emitter (see chart). Its path is key to whether the temperature-limiting goals of the Paris Agreement can remain within reach.

The big picture: The absence of a stronger pledge bummed out advocates ahead of COP26's opening Sunday.

  • "It doesn’t advance the ball sufficiently," U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told the NYT, and the story headline calls China's move a "bad omen" for COP26.
  • "China's decision casts a shadow on the global climate effort," Greenpeace's Li Shuo said.
  • Bernice Lee of the London-based Chatham House tells NewScientist that "you can't sugar-coat it" and the world was "expecting more."

Yes, but: These formal filings with the UN aren't the only venue for commitments.

  • "There is still a lot Beijing could do outside of these targets in the next two weeks at the G20 Summit in Rome and COP26 in Glasgow,"  said Byford Tsang of the climate think tank E3G.
  • That includes China "supporting a political commitment" to keeping warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, and putting a sunset date on its coal use, Tsang said in a statement.

4. Oil giant's earnings jump

The run-up in oil and natural gas prices and increased demand as economies recover from the pandemic helped send major oil companies' earnings upward, Ben writes.

Driving the news: Chevron this morning posted a $6.1 billion third-quarter profit, its highest since early 2013. Exxon reported a $6.8 billion Q3 haul, which was its largest since late 2017.

The intrigue: The Wall Street Journal — in a piece on those reports and other producers' profits — notes major oil companies are "heeding investor calls" to return money to shareholders instead of a drilling surge.

But the piece adds that investors and analysts are now watching to see whether companies will "succumb to the temptation of plowing more money into growing production."

Exxon also announced plans to boost spending on "low carbon" initiatives.

5. Climate change is at the forefront for Latinos

Hispanic and non-Hispanic views on climate change
Reproduced from Pew Research; Chart: Axios Visuals

Eight in 10 Latinos in the U.S. consider addressing climate change a priority, more so than non-Hispanics, per a Pew Research Center poll, Marina E. Franco of Noticias Telemundo writes in the Axios Latino newsletter.

Why it matters: The changing climate has been shown to have a disproportionate effect on people of color in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Over half of Latinos living in the U.S. reside in states hit hardest by climate change — such as severe drought and fires in California, higher temperatures in Texas and Arizona, or flooding in Florida.
  • Those living in Latin America and the Caribbean will face some of the worst socio-economic crises from global warming, a UN report states.

By the numbers: 81% of U.S. Latinos consider climate change an important concern, in contrast to 67% of non-Hispanics polled by Pew.

  • Latinos now living in the continental U.S. but were born elsewhere are more worried about global warming: 79% fear its impact on their communities compared to 64% of those born in the U.S.

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We'll see you next week from COP26 in Glasgow, where we'll be covering the summit from start to finish.