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Representative Ro Khanna takes on big oil, Silicon Valley

California Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna talks with Yahoo Finance about the spending deal debate in D.C., social media regulation, and his hearing with major oil industry executives on Thursday.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: The CEOs of six major oil companies and trade groups are set to testify before the House in a landmark hearing on Thursday that puts a spotlight on the role fossil fuels have played in accelerating climate change. At the heart of the discussion here, did big oil knowingly spread disinformation about its impact on the environment to push profits higher?

Let's bring in the co-chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. That is Congressman Ro Khanna of California. Congressman, it's great to talk to you today. You have been at this investigation that many have compared to the congressional investigation into big tobacco many, many years ago. What are you hoping to get out of this hearing on Thursday?

RO KHANNA: Akiko, it's pretty simple. They knew, they lied. They continued to deceive. We will have scores of evidence that these big oil companies misrepresented to the American public the threat of climate change. They cast doubt and uncertainty, even though they had scientists in their own company telling them that climate change and climate crisis was going to be catastrophic. And that they continue to engage in a pattern of deception. You're right to compare it to the big tobacco hearings.

AKIKO FUJITA: I mean, it sounds like, in many ways, you've already reached the conclusion about how big oil companies, in your words, sort of peddle disinformation. But what are some key questions you're looking to get out of these oil majors? Because it is rare to get all of the executives in the same room testifying before the House.

RO KHANNA: That's right. It's not me who has reached the conclusions. It's people like Naomi Oreskes, who's written a brilliant book, "Merchants of Doubt," and many, many different researchers. And it's all in the public record. But this is the first time, the first time that these big oil executives are going to be testifying under oath, even in the litigation that hasn't happened yet.

And so we have a lot of questions. Do they acknowledge the misrepresentations? What are they doing to prevent third parties from spreading misinformation? What are their plans to actually tackle, currently, the climate crisis? What are their own scientists telling them about the climate crisis? What are the documents that they rely on to make their determinations on climate? And all of these things need to come out, and they need to be answering these questions under oath.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, congressman, I mean, when we think about, I guess, repercussions from all of this, how do you look at maybe what penalties should exist there and whether or not right now is the right time to be penalizing oil companies?

As, you know, this shift in the Build Back Better plan and everything else, the shift to green energy, a lot of people are highlighting right now that, you know, given the supply issues in the energy space, prices at the pump have been going up, you don't want to move too quickly as it could kind of damage the idea of this shift to green energies. And people on the fringe in the moderate camp could see that as maybe a negative and really withdraw their support for some of this green push here. So how do you look at maybe all of that fitting in?

RO KHANNA: Zack, it's a very thoughtful question. First, the big issue I have with the big oil companies is that they're lying about the climate science. That has nothing to do with the price at the pump. They should be honest and tell the truth.

But to your question, the price at the pump is an issue. It's an issue in my district. Now, having new oil development, which would take years to actually happen, isn't going to bring down prices immediately. What could bring down prices is the president tapping the Strategic Petroleum Oil Reserve, the president being tougher on Saudi Arabia and OPEC. And the president is considering that.

Long-term, what's going to bring the price of gas down is to have less demand, meaning more renewable energy, more electric vehicles. The less Americans need oil, the price will fall. That's basic supply and demand.

AKIKO FUJITA: Let me ask you about the negotiations that are happening in DC right now, specifically around the president's Build Back Better Act, which does include some key provisions the president has been trying to push on the climate front.

We're days out from the UN Climate Change Conference, and you were quoted as saying that you had a conversation with President Biden, who said, I need this. I need this to-- an agreement, at least, to be had in place so that he can take that to world leaders in Glasgow to say, in fact, the US is still leading on this conversation.

How optimistic are you about this? And to what extent do you think the president's hand has been weakened by the infighting that has happened within the party on some of these issues?

RO KHANNA: Akiko, I am very optimistic. First of all, I don't think there's actually been much infighting. There have been two holdout senators and maybe less than 10 House members who have issues. But the party, 98% of it is unified. I acknowledge it's been a challenge to get the remaining 2% on board, but the president has made tremendous progress this week, as has the speaker.

I believe he will have a deal that we can all count on before he leaves. At least, that's what progressives are working towards. It's hard to pass major legislation when you have 50 votes in the Senate, not a single Republican voting for it, and a slim House majority. So I give the president a lot of credit for his leadership in a very divided country.

AKIKO FUJITA: Do you think if a president doesn't have an agreement in place by the time he goes to Glasgow, that weakens the credibility of the US, when there are a lot of questions around the world about whether, in fact, the US is serious this time around about taking on climate action?

RO KHANNA: Yes, it does. I mean, anyone being candid would have to acknowledge it's not a good thing for the President of the United States to show up and for Congress not to give him a framework of what we're going to do on climate change, when the Chinese have a framework, the Europeans have a framework.

I mean, look, American leadership is still indispensable. I still believe we're the greatest nation when it comes to innovation, when it comes to risk capital, when it comes to having people from around the world. So America is always going to matter. But in Glasgow, for us to lead, we really need to arm the president with a deal.

ZACK GUZMAN: Well, I mean, there's a lot of topics we're hitting here, congressman. And obviously, the area that you represent there, in the heart of Silicon Valley, it's been talked about a lot recently in regards to the protections there when it comes to customers of these platforms.

Of course, the Facebook papers, it's been well documented recently, but they're not the only ones. And we're hearing that now in a hearing in Congress, the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security. I just want to play a little bit of what we heard there in terms of not just Facebook, but other companies also, Snapchat taking this issue on. Take a listen.

JENNIFER PARK STOUT: As we look to the future, we believe that regulation is necessary. But given the different speeds at which technology develops and which the rate at which regulation can be implemented, regulation alone can't get the job done. Technology companies must take responsibility to protect the communities they serve.

ZACK GUZMAN: And so, look, I mean, this is an issue that's been out there for years, right? And we've seen incremental change in terms of maybe companies trying to regulate this themselves. But I mean, as you look at that issue in terms of protecting, particularly now, more increasingly talked about, kids on these platforms, I mean, what do you think needs to be done to finally address and solve that issue?

RO KHANNA: Zack, we absolutely need regulation. It's common sense. I mean, you can't have Facebook peddling a product that is causing teenage girls to have eating disorders, that is causing them to have higher rates of suicide, that it's causing them to have depression. That's not my data. That's internal studies that Facebook themselves did. So we need to have the same consumer protection laws for Facebook, as we do for any other products that are sold to minors. And that goes for Snapchat.

Now I agree that regulation isn't sufficient if we don't have people who are tech savvy actually implementing the legislation. This is why the tech companies in my district have run circles around the GDPR because Europe has no clue on the enforcement of a lot of these regulations that they have. We need to do a better job, beef up the FTC, beef up the SEC with people who actually understand technology, so that tech companies don't run circles around regulations that are passed.

AKIKO FUJITA: Congressman, I wonder what you make of the divide that we're seeing. On the one hand, these concerns that have been raised by these Facebook papers, but even before that, about these allegations that a company like Facebook is choosing profits over safety, fears about parents, for example, going on a platform like Instagram.

And then yet, here we are today, talking about Facebook's latest quarterly results, profits continuing to push higher, even if it's slowed down just a bit. I mean, it feels like there's really no incentive for Facebook to make real changes so long as their business is humming along.

RO KHANNA: You're right, Akiko. I mean, this is why we need Congress to act. I mean, it's a very profitable business to get teenage girls addicted to a platform and teenagers in general, where they keep coming back and they spend time and you're advertising to them. That, I imagine, is profitable.

But we need to say, you can't do that in this country. I mean, you can't sell minors products that are going to cause them physical harm. And minors don't have the same First Amendment rights as adults. They're not equal under our Supreme Court jurisprudence. So we are working right now, actually, on a bill that would enforce regulations on advertising and on products to minors. And I believe that could have very bipartisan support.

But then we need an FTC that's capable of enforcing it. And I think this is what isn't discussed enough. There is a technological illiteracy, frankly, in Washington. There has been one in Europe. And the tech companies benefit because even when the regulations get passed, they find tech loopholes around them.

ZACK GUZMAN: There's a lot to talk about. Appreciate you coming on here to chat. We're going to be watching for that big oil hearing on Thursday. I hope to have you back on the program soon. California Representative Ro Khanna, thanks again for the time. Appreciate it.