Exxon Lobbyists Reveal in Secret Recordings How They Manipulate Politicians and the Public

Exxon Lobbyists Reveal in Secret Recordings How They Manipulate Politicians and the Public
Photo: Matthew Brown, AP

Two lobbyists for Exxon have been caught on tape admitting how the company manipulates politicians and the public. Among the damning admissions are that the company views its advocacy for a carbon tax as little more than “an advocacy tool” and that it once funded “shadow groups” to fight climate science.

When it comes to oil and gas majors, getting a peek at the internal workings of a company past its PR-heavy facade is rare. But the new investigation conducted by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace UK, provides a revealing peek behind the curtain of secrecy to show how Big Oil operates to game the system.

To set up the sting, representatives from Unearthed posed as recruitment consultants looking to hire a DC lobbyist for a major client. They then had Zoom calls with two senior Exxon staffers: Keith McCoy, Exxon’s senior director of federal relations, and Dan Easley, who formerly worked as an executive branch and regulatory team lead for federal relations. The Unearthed team asked both men about their time at Exxon and the company’s lobbying on environmental issues, while secretly recording both calls, which took place in April and May. Footage of the interviews was released to the UK’s Channel 4, which aired it on Wednesday.

A chief talking point of the two interviews was the recent work Exxon did lobbying against President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan which, in its original form, proposed a slew of groundbreaking climate initiatives. The plan also called for cranking up the corporate tax rate to pay for those initiatives, sending major businesses and corporate lobbying groups into a panic. Exxon, it seems, is no exception.

“We’re playing defence” on the bill, McCoy told the Unearthed interviewers in his May conversation, according to a transcript provided by Greenpeace, before rattling off the lawmakers from both parties he’d been talking to about the bill. He boasted about his relationships with certain lawmakers as well. Among those mentioned are fossil fuel heavy-hitters like Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Republican Sens. John Cornyn and John Barrasso.

In his interview, Easley seemed to see beyond the corporate tax rate to what a groundbreaking piece of climate infrastructure legislation like the original American Jobs Plan could mean for a fossil fuel giant. The bill, Easley said, is “going to be replete with provisions that will be difficult for oil and gas,” including “a whole host of new environmental requirements and procurement requirements, requirements for the federal government to purchase green energy and renewable technologies and retrofitting federal buildings. … It’s going to accelerate the transition to the extent that I think four years from now it’s going to be difficult to unwind that. So we’re all living in a different world and that’s why we see oil and gas companies with unclear carbon emissions.”

The interviews also gave a glimpse of how the fossil fuel industry really views some of its most recent pro-climate PR moves. After years of lobbying against actual proposals for a carbon tax, many oil majors and affiliated groups have done an about-face on the policy. Exxon is among the founding members of the Climate Leadership Council, a group that backs a carbon tax. More recently, the American Petroleum Institute — of which Exxon is a member — announced in March that it would support a government-instituted carbon tax.

McCoy was at Exxon when the company initially rolled out its support for a carbon tax in 2017. During his Zoom interview, he called a carbon tax an “advocacy tool” and “great talking point.”

“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 that we can say, ‘well what is ExxonMobil for, we’re for a carbon tax,’” McCoy said. (Not to brag, but we kind of called this when we wrote back in March that API was only coming out in support of a carbon tax now because it had spent years poisoning the well to make any sort of bipartisan agreement realistically impossible at this point.)

McCoy also told the interviewers that Exxon had poured money into “shadow groups” in order to fight against climate science. According to Greenpeace’s release, this marks the first time that a sitting executive at Exxon had admitted to the company’s role in funding dark money denier efforts.

“There’s nothing illegal about that,” McCoy helpfully noted. “We were looking out for our investments, we were looking out for our shareholders.”

(The company’s shareholders, it appears, didn’t appreciate those efforts.)

“No matter how much Exxon wants you to think they care about the climate crisis, this shows as clear as day that the tiger hasn’t changed its stripes,” Charlie Kronick, a senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace UK, said in a release. “The oil giant is still using every trick in the lobbyist’s playbook to weaken or derail climate action in the U.S. We now know for sure that Exxon’s support for a carbon tax is just a cynical ploy based on their belief that it will never happen.”

A spokesperson for Exxon told Channel 4 that the company stands by its position on corporate taxes in the American Jobs Plan and supporting a carbon tax. They also said Exxon has “supported climate science for decades” (riiiiiiight) and would like “other options” to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, “including lower-carbon fuels and other sector-based approaches that would place a uniform, predictable cost on carbon.” (No word, of course, on the IEA’s recent mandate that new fossil fuel exploration needs to stop by next year.)

Exxon has for a long time been qualitatively (and quantitatively) the oil major that has been the slowest to adjust to changing energy markets. And it pioneered climate denial and has mastered the art of delay even as it knew the risks of its products. There’s a reason that investors threw a coup last month and put three new members on Exxon’s board, including a longtime oil and gas executive, in a move seen as shocking and progressive. The company has been that bad at getting its act together.

But as more and more of the world’s oil majors throw money into advertising and new language to convince us that they’re doing everything they can, really, to fix the mess they’ve made, these interviews provide an important reminder that it’s still largely window dressing. When it comes to Exxon, the company’s oil-driven profits have always been its bottom line, and it looks like that’s not changing anytime soon.