30 Jun 2021

Revealed: ExxonMobil’s lobbying war on climate change legislation

Chief Correspondent

A senior ExxonMobil lobbyist has been captured on camera revealing how the oil giant is using its power and influence to water down US climate legislation.

The explosive footage was obtained by Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigative platform, who posed as head-hunters to obtain the information from one of ExxonMobil’s most senior Washington lobbyists.

The recordings appear to reveal the secretive behind-the-scenes activities of a lobbyist for a company that claims in public to support action on climate change, while fighting against legislative attempts to tackle it.

ExxonMobil say they “have supported climate science for decades” and accuse Greenpeace of “waging a multi-decade campaign” against their company and industry.

They insist their “lobbying fully comply with all laws and are publicly disclosed on a quarterly basis.”

‘Shadow groups’

Keith McCoy is a senior ExxonMobil lobbyist on Capitol Hill and has represented the company in its liaison with the US Congress for the last eight years.

Greenpeace UK’s Unearthed platform posed as head-hunters looking to hire a Washington D.C. lobbyist for a major client. They approached Mr McCoy, who agreed to speak over Zoom.

During the covert recordings, which have been passed to Channel 4 News, Mr McCoy claims:

  • the company secretly fought against legislative action on climate change using third-party organisations
  • he lobbied key senators to remove and/or diminish climate change measures from President Biden’s US $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs bill as it proceeds through the legislative process
  • he regards trade bodies like the American Petroleum Institute as “whipping boys” in order to avoid public scrutiny on Capitol Hill

During the virtual meeting held on 7 May, the investigators asked Mr McCoy questions about ExxonMobil’s current and historical lobbying on environmental issues.

In the excerpts from the footage to be broadcast on Channel 4 News tonight, Mr McCoy claims that ExxonMobil has aggressively fought science to deny climate change in order to maximise profit and shareholder return. He alleges that ExxonMobil joined “shadow groups” to pursue climate change denial.

Mr McCoy said: “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science?  Yes. Did we hide our science?  Absolutely not.  Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing, there’s nothing illegal about that.

“We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders.”

ExxonMobil told Channel 4 News that they “have supported climate science for decades.”

‘It’s like fishing’

Mr McCoy likens the approach to lobbying congressmen to the way fishermen target fish, claiming that ExxonMobil puts out “bait” and then “reels in” congressmen on issues like carbon tax, electric vehicles, chemicals, taxation and infrastructure.

Mr McCoy said: “When you have an opportunity to talk to a member of Congress, I liken it to fishing, right? You know you have bait, you throw that bait out. And they say: ‘Oh, you want to talk about infrastructure, yeah.’

“And then you start to reel them in and you start to have these conversations about federal leasing programmes, you start to have these conversations about a carbon tax. You know, it’s all these opportunities that you use and to use the fishing analogy again just to kind of reel them in.”

He added: “I make sure I get them the right information that they need so they look good. And then they help me out. They’re a captive audience. They know they need you. And I need them.”

He says lobbyists aim to have a direct relationship with a member of congress, adding: “You want to be able to go to the chief… and say we need congressman so and so to be able to either introduce this bill, we need him to make a floor statement, we need him to send a letter. You name it, we’ve asked for everything.”

‘The Kingmaker’

Mr McCoy names 11 senators who he says are “crucial” to ExxonMobil: Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Senator Jon Tester, Senator Maggie Hassan, Senator John Barrasso, Senator John Cornyn, Senator Steve Daines, Senator Chris Coons, Senator Mark Kelly and Senator Marco Rubio

We gave all these senators a chance to respond. All the senators declined to comment. There is no suggestion of illegality.

Channel 4 News has established, through Federal Election Commission (FEC) data, that all except two of these senators (Senators Maggie Hassan and Mark Kelly) have received financial contributions from ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil insists “our lobbying efforts fully comply with all laws and are publicly disclosed on a quarterly basis”.

Mr McCoy described Senator Joe Manchin as “the Kingmaker” in the Senate and he says he spoke to his office on a weekly basis.

The FEC data shows Senator Manchin has received at least $12,500 from the ExxonMobil Political Action Committee in declared disbursements since the beginning of the 2011-12 election cycle.

Mr McCoy described how a “big piece of [his] job is education and advocacy” and says that in his work on behalf of ExxonMobil he argues that US government programmes to roll out electric vehicles are unrealistic.

He said: “The research and development conversation has taken us a long way because of climate change. And there is a struggle to find solutions and to get the reductions that they’re looking for. And you’re not going to be able to just switch to battery operated vehicles or wind for your electricity. And just having that conversation around why that’s not possible in the next 10 years is critically important to the work that we do.”

‘Whipping boy’

Mr McCoy described a lobbying strategy in which he claims ExxonMobil uses third parties to mask its interests from public view and accountability.

He said: “We don’t want it to be us, to have these conversations, especially in a hearing. It’s getting our associations to step in and have those conversations and answer those tough questions and be for, the lack of a better term, the whipping boy for some of these members of congress.”

He added: “There was something we were working on earlier this week where we, where our CEO was invited to a hearing from a member of congress who we know is just going to rip him to shreds when he goes there. So, we look at it and we say: well, why us?”

Mr McCoy claims that ExxonMobil lobbied Congress to dilute the climate provisions of President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill.

He said: “That’s a completely different conversation when you start to stick to roads and bridges. And instead of a $2 trillion bill, it’s an $800 billion dollar bill. If you lower that threshold, you stick to highways and bridges then a lot of the negative stuff starts to come out.”

“Why would you put in something on emissions reductions on climate change to oil refineries in a highway bill? So, people say yeah that doesn’t make any sense, so then you get to the germane of saying that shouldn’t be in this bill.”

ExxonMobil said: “Our discussion on the bill are not accurately portrayed. Our lobbying efforts are related to a tax burden that could disadvantage us businesses.”

Carbon tax

Mr McCoy appears to suggest that ExxonMobil’s public support for a carbon tax is underpinned by the conviction it will never happen, allowing the company to “support” it in order to appear green.

He said: “I will tell you there is not an appetite for a carbon tax. It is a non-starter. Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans. And the cynical side of me says yeah we kind of know that. But it gives us a talking point. We can say well what is ExxonMobil for? Well we’re for a carbon tax.

“Carbon tax is not gonna happen. I have always said, and I’ve worked on climate change issues for twenty years. There’s a lot of talk around it and the bottom line is it’s going to take political courage, political will in order to get something done. And that just doesn’t exist in politics. It just doesn’t.

Purporting to speak on behalf of ExxonMobil, Mr McCoy also expressed a corporate view that, contrary to science, natural gas is a clean energy source.

He said: “On a clean electricity standard, we think natural gas will play a key role in anything. And not just as a bridge fuel. We think it is a low emission energy source and should be part of a clean electricity standard.”

ExxonMobil statement

A spokesperson for ExxonMobil told Channel 4 News:  “Greenpeace has waged a multi-decade campaign against our company and industry, which has included false claims and unlawful actions at our facilities as well as those of other companies around the world.

“Our lobbying efforts are related to a tax burden that could disadvantage U.S. businesses, and we have made that position known publicly. ExxonMobil stands by our position that increased taxes on American businesses make the U.S. less competitive.

“We have been clear in supporting an efficient, economy-wide price on carbon as the best way to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. While there is not broad support for a tax, we are actively and publicly discussing other options, including lower-carbon fuels and other sector-based approaches that would place a uniform, predictable cost on carbon.

“We have supported climate science for decades. Greenpeace and others have distorted our position on climate science and our support for effective policy solutions.

”ExxonMobil transparently engages with a variety of trade associations, think tanks and coalitions in order to promote informed dialogue and sound public policy in areas pertinent to the Corporation’s interests.

“ExxonMobil exercises its right to engage in lobbying in the United States at both the Federal and State levels to advocate our positions on issues that affect our Corporation and the energy industry.

“We have a responsibility to our customers, employees, communities and shareholders to represent their interests in public policy discussions that impact our business.

“Our lobbying efforts fully comply with all laws and are publicly disclosed on a quarterly basis, including the issues we discuss.”