Politics

Not Too Slick

How Exxon Mobil exposed itself on tape.

The Exxon Mobil logo is seen on the New York Stock Exchange.
The logo of Exxon Mobil Corp. is shown on a monitor above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York on Dec. 30, 2015. Reuters

Listen to What Next:

Lawrence Carter works at Greenpeace U.K. as an investigative journalist for its outlet Unearthed. His latest reporting consisted of a sting operation on Exxon Mobil Corp., one of the largest oil companies in the world. Carter wanted to zero in on Exxon in particular because the corporation uses trade associations to cloak the way it operates in Washington. That means there isn’t much on the record about what the company has been advocating for, besides a few press releases. Carter wanted to know what the company stood for behind the scenes, and get Exxon employees to talk about the ways they’ve twisted science and politics in order to stay in business.

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Posing as a recruitment consultant, Carter lured two men who’d worked as Big Oil lobbyists into Zoom meetings. Then he pressed record. It’s eerie to see the footage Lawrence obtained. We see these lobbyists admit to political maneuverings both basic and shocking: “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes.” Over hours of conversation, the lobbyists reveal that even a position that seems environmentally friendly—like Exxon’s support of a “carbon tax”—might be nothing more than a stalling tactic; as Carter puts it, “In this way, Exxon can claim to be for action on climate change while opposing regulations proposed by the Biden administration that would actually achieve near-term cuts to greenhouse gases.”

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On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Carter about his investigation, what we should understand about Exxon and oil lobbyists, and what all this means for our energy future. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: If what these lobbyists told you is expected behavior in American politics, or at least predictable, I wonder why you think it was worth uncovering it anyway and going to such lengths to do it.

Lawrence Carter: The key thing is that these companies continue to deny that they’re lobbying against climate action. So we felt that it would be a powerful thing that would be in the public interest to go undercover and see what lobbyists for the company actually said when they didn’t think they were speaking in public. If it had been possible to submit a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests, go through the regulatory filings, speak to the usual sources I talk to, and get to the bottom of the company’s lobbying on climate policy, we would have done that because that’s a lot more straightforward, a lot less resource-intensive. But what we found was that they were not leaving that usual trace of its lobbying activity.

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My editor actually had the idea of posing as a recruitment consultant, because he thought that would be a way you could approach individuals within a company who would be willing to talk to you. We set up the online presence to make it look convincing, and then we approached some senior people at Exxon. We called up Keith McCoy, a senior lobbyist for Exxon—he has generally focused on Capitol Hill. We asked him for a meeting, and we also phoned up Dan Easley, who was Exxon’s top White House lobbyist throughout the Trump administration for a meeting.

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What did these folks think they were talking to you about?

The pitch was basically that we were a D.C.-based lobbying firm with a client, an oil and gas fund based in the Middle East. That enabled us to ask a lot of questions about their approach to lobbying.

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Can we go in point by point and talk about some of the things your investigation revealed? Going into these calls, you already knew a fair bit about Exxon and its approach to climate change: In the 1990s and 2000s, the company spent a lot of money sowing uncertainty about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change. Then in recent years, Exxon had said it was supporting a carbon tax. But how did your conversations flesh out what you already knew?

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The most interesting thing to me was the admission that day regarding Exxon’s battle against early climate science, because that’s something that the company to this day continues to deny. What a lot of groups have been accusing Exxon of is doing all this early climate research that concluded climate change was a significant threat, and Exxon was contributing that quietly behind the scenes in academic circles. But then in public, it was sowing doubts about climate science. Exxon’s always been keen to shift the debate away from those accusations and just say, Look, we didn’t bury our science, we didn’t hide our science, see, we published it in this journal, here’s us speaking publicly about it.

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But the actual accusation is that Exxon misled the public on climate science. And the lobbyists reiterated the fact that they’ve done that through shadow groups—we believe he’s referring to this vast network of think tanks and other pressure groups …

Places like the Heritage Foundation.

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Exactly. Or the Heartland Institute. They really helped shift the whole debate in the U.S. on climate change to a very bad place. Exxon played a leading role in that, spending at least $30 million on these networks, according to investigations.

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Keith McCoy really lays out a strategy for Exxon: Get the company itself away from anything like congressional testimony, send in a trade group or third party who’s going to represent your interests instead, don’t associate them whatever’s going on with the brand itself, and then use these shadow groups to support Exxon’s stances they have. But he never really fully articulated what those groups are.

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I think what Exxon does now is work through groups like the American Petroleum Institute or American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers or the American Chemistry Council. It does that for a few reasons. The first, as Mr. McCoy says, is to send in the whipping boy. So if a progressive Congress member wants to pull the CEO, Darron Woods, in front of a congressional inquiry, what Exxon tries to do instead is send in the whipping boy to take the beating. That is someone from the American Petroleum Institute.

Exxon’s been working with the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council to try to kick the can down the road in terms of the efforts to legislate. McCoy boasts that they had the idea of requesting a study into forever chemicals so that there would be a delay until actual regulations came in into force. And he said that they won that.

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So instead of actually regulating the chemicals, they’re just going to study them for a little bit of time. And that buys the company a moment to figure out what they do next, which is probably just continue to do what they’re doing now. But they have a couple more years to do it.

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Yeah. You see this a lot in the pesticides industry, where the company will fight tooth and nail against a product being regulated and just buying time—because every day it’s not regulated or banned, they’re making more money and making a return on their investment while developing the project.

For Exxon, this isn’t just about fighting climate change or the science—it’s about money. Dan Easley talked about how the Trump administration was a huge win for Exxon. But the biggest win of all wasn’t anything environmental: It was the cut to the corporate tax rate. So you realize how much these things are intertwined, where Exxon is such a massive company that that cut to the corporate tax rate was huge for them, allows them to keep doing what they’re doing. It’s not just about climate change.

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Yeah, the infrastructure package ordeal was just as much about making sure that Exxon didn’t have to pay for any of this climate stuff as it was about the threat that that stuff, like subsidies for electric vehicles, was opposed to its business interests. Exxon had a very strong incentive to make sure the bill was as small as possible.

McCoy in particular is really transparent about how they’re doing that, which is just going to senators they think are moderate or may be influenceable, especially West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin or Shelley Capito. McCoy even says he’s speaking to their offices once a week, which seems like a lot.

Yeah, and he also talks about how they’d set up a meeting between Biden’s close friend Sen. Chris Coons with the Exxon CEO so that they could get through to the president via his friend. I think some of the senators have said McCoy’s exaggerated his access to them, but you can see what the strategy is and you can also see what the result has been in terms of that infrastructure package, out of which the vast majority of climate spending has been stripped. There could have been other forces at play, but it seems Exxon has gotten what it wants.

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There was a moment a couple weeks back when President Joe Biden got in front of cameras and said, “We have a deal,” on infrastructure. Joe Manchin was there. But I wonder if you saw that tape and thought of it a little bit differently, knowing what might have gone into that deal.

I certainly did. I kind of saw that this is exactly the deal Exxon wanted. And looking at the statement that was made, seeing many of the senators McCoy boasts of having spoken to, looking at how these compromise packages come to be—it’s quite depressing stuff, to be honest.

Exxon has responded to your sting. CEO Darren Woods said the comments of former Exxon lobbyist Dan Easley and current Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy are “entirely inconsistent” with the oil giant’s work. McCoy issued his own mea culpa on LinkedIn, saying he was “embarrassed” by his comments and that they don’t represent Exxon’s positions.

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I think Exxon’s ability to continue to maintain that it’s good-faith actor on climate change is going to be very difficult. The company should be thinking about how it can reflect on the happenings over the past few months, whether that’s this story or the activism by its shareholders.

I do think that there’s a possibility that companies like Exxon will shift. Personally, I think that’s pretty important. It’s a $300 billion dollar. It’s very influential and global. If it were to become more of a good-faith actor on these issues, that could be helpful to efforts to tackle climate change. But I’m not naive. This is just one small development id a much longer story about kind of how we tackle the climate crisis. But to tackle a big problem like climate change, you need lots of small things to happen.

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