Whenever a smart, powerful woman starts using literal grains of rice to illustrate her point, you know you done goofed. Big Oil companies found that out the hard way when, during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Thursday, Rep. Katie Porter whipped out 479 pounds (212 kilograms) of uncooked rice to illustrate how many vacant acres of public land are currently being leased by fossil fuel companies.
During Thursday’s hearing, top executives from Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP were grilled by Democratic representatives about whether they had “ever approved a disinformation campaign” around climate science (they have) and corporate greenwashing (they do). After each executive filibustered and Republicans apologized for this whole misunderstanding, Porter appeared in her garage via Zoom to illustrate the executives’ hypocrisy by way of food props.
First, Porter called out Shell’s head in the U.S. Gretchen Watkins, who has in the past publicly referred to the existential threat of climate change as a “defining challenge for our generation.”
“Shell’s 2020 annual report called for between $19 and $22 billion in near-term spending. I’m representing that with this container of M&Ms,” Porter said. “Each M&M represents about $50 million.”
Of that whopping sum, how much of the money would go towards oil, gas, and petrochemical operations? Porter asked Watkins before dumping most of the jar out to illustrate the fact that only a scant few M&Ms remained to devote to clean energy initiatives.
“To me, this does not look like an adequate response to one of the defining challenges of our time,” Porter added.
Next, Porter addressed American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers, stepping aside to tactfully reveal a minivan with “OVRSITE” vanity plates. Sommers is the head of the oil and gas industry’s main trade group, which has lobbied extensively against regulations that would constrain the industry in any way.
Pressing Sommers on the number of unused acres of public land fossil fuel companies are currently squatting on, Porter ignored his repeated dismissals by casually raising her key fob to open the van’s trunk, revealing a dozen or so massive bags of rice.
“The answer is 13.9 million acres,” she said. “To visualize how much land that is, if each grain of rice was one acre, that would be 479 pounds of rice.”
The Biden administration put a pause on federal oil and gas leasing earlier this year, and is grappling with how to balance its climate goals going forward. Having the oil and gas industry support a pause and actively engaging in talks on winding down production would be an act of good faith by Big Oil to show it takes the science seriously. After asking each executive in turn if they supported that pause—spoiler alert, none of them did—Porter grabbed an open bag of rice and began dumping it on the ground.
“You already have 13.9 million acres! This is equivalent to Maryland and New Jersey combined. How much more do you need?” she asked. “You have two of our 50 states at a price that makes the Louisiana Purchase look like a rip-off and you’re not even using it. What more do you need? Iowa? Colorado? Virginia?”
The American public deserves tireless crusaders who fight to protect public lands and hold Big Oil executives accountable. To that end, Porter is an invaluable resource. Not least of her sacrifices is the fact that she will likely be eating white rice and M&Ms with every meal for the next five or so years—a brave contribution to the quest for climate justice. We thank her for her service.