How Exxon Gets Its Way
S1: Lawrence Carter is a bit of a ghost, I went looking for a picture of you online before we spoke. Yeah, I couldn’t find one and I had to wonder if that was intentional.
S2: That is intentional.
S1: Lawrence works at Greenpeace. OK, but he’s an investigative journalist and he’s not afraid to call his latest reporting a sting operation.
S2: Yeah, an undercover sting and undercover investigation, I’m not precious about what we call it. Yeah, you can call this thing.
S1: This sting was focused on ExxonMobil, one of the largest oil companies in the world, posing as a headhunter, Lawrence lured two men who’d worked as big oil lobbyists into Zoome meetings. Then he pressed record.
S3: Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes.
S1: It’s eerie to look at this footage Lawrence obtained in the same anodyne zoom rooms all of us have been working in over the last year and a half. We see these lobbyists admit to political maneuverings, both basic and shocking.
S3: Did me join some of these shadowy groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But that’s nothing. There’s nothing illegal about that.
S1: Over hours of conversation, the lobbyists reveal that even a position that seems environmentally friendly, like Exxon support of a carbon tax might be nothing more than a stalling tactic.
S3: Nobody is going to 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 so we can say, well, what does Exxon Mobil Fort Worth for a carbon tax? No, it’s not. It’s not a carbon tax isn’t going to happen.
S2: It’s a way in which they can claim to be for action on climate change whilst opposing regulations proposed by the Biden administration or previously the Obama administration that would actually achieve near-term cuts to greenhouse gases. They instead hide behind this kind of fig leaf of a carbon tax, which they know will never happen.
S1: Lawrence says his goal was to get Exxon employees to talk about the ways they’ve twisted science and politics in order to stay in business, in a way, what he recorded is exactly what he expected.
S2: I’m shocked, but not surprised
S1: what these lobbyists told you is kind of expected behavior in American politics are predictable. I wonder why you think it was worth uncovering it anyway and going to such lengths to do it.
S2: For those of us who are cynical, you kind of you do kind of know what is going on, but that the key thing is the companies that continues to deny that they’re doing this. And 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.
S1: Today on the show, as Congress tries to figure out how and whether to address climate change. This investigation underscores why progress seems to be stalling out. A Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around. Lawrence Carter had very specific reasons for wanting to zero in on ExxonMobil in particular, unlike a lot of other companies. He says Exxon uses trade associations to cloak the way they operate in D.C. That means there isn’t much on the record about what the company has been advocating for sure. There are press releases saying Exxon supports the Paris climate agreement. But Lawrence wanted to know what the company stood for behind the scenes
S2: if it would be impossible to submit a bunch of Freedom of Information requests, go through the regulatory filings, speak to the usual sources that I talk to, and get to the bottom of what the company has been up to in lobbying on climate policy, then we would have done that because, you know, it’s a lot more straightforward, a lot less resource intensive and essentially has the same result. But what we found was that they were not leaving that kind of usual trace of that lobbying activity. And so we felt that it was kind of strongly in the public interest to go undercover and get to the bottom of it.
S1: The process of getting to the bottom of Exxon’s lobbying strategy with an undercover sting was a little mundane. Lawrence says he didn’t launch straight into creating a false persona, for example.
S2: And it’s way more boring than that, I’m afraid.
S1: So you’re not like putting on prosthetics and it’s not exciting?
S2: Well, you’re not wading into the kind of that aspect of the investigation of the stock because you’re spending a lot of time building up a strong kind of evidential basis for why it’s in the public interest to go undercover. I know that in the US, it’s not really in the journalistic toolkit. In the US, no,
S1: not in the same way it is in the U.K..
S2: Yeah, it very much is in the UK to the point where this kind of conventions and best practice around it in which we follow. And so that best practice is to conduct a public interest balancing test. So you’re weighing the kind of privacy concerns over using subterfuge with the evidence that suggests that doing so outweighs our ways, that in terms of it being in the public interest. And so I spent a lot of time building up this case. You know, the document runs into about 50 pages. So I spent a lot of time building up that case before my editor would sign the project off.
S1: So you made like a 50 page argument for why you needed to go undercover, and that was your first step.
S2: Yeah, and that’s a long time.
S1: So once you did that, once you convinced your bosses, what did you do then?
S2: So my editor actually had the idea of posing as a recruitment consultant because he thought that that would be a way you could approach individuals within a company in a way that they would be willing to talk to you about what they do.
S1: Headhunter, essentially.
S2: Yeah. Headhunter, yeah. Eventually, the next step was, you know, setting up, I guess, the online presence and making that look convincing. And then we approached some senior people to introduce me to them. Keith McCoy, senior lobbyist for Exxon. He kind of just generally focused on Capitol Hill. And we asked him for a meeting. Then we also phoned up Dan Easley, who left Exxon in February, and to go for work for clean tech firm and who was Exxon top White House lobbyist throughout the Trump administration. And we also asked him for a meeting.
S1: You said that you you were posing as a headhunter. So what did these folks think they were talking to you about?
S2: The pitch was basically that we had a client that wanted to set up a Washington, D.C. lobbying operation. It’s like an oil and gas fund based in the Middle East. And they were a big client of ours. And that enabled us to, you know, really ask a lot of questions about their approach to lobbying.
S1: Once these meetings were scheduled, Lawrence never appeared on the Zoome call with Exxon lobbyists. He had a collaborator play the part of the headhunter Lawrence listened in and texted follow up questions to his coconspirator. The calls were lengthy. One went on for over an hour.
S2: I guess people quite like talking about themselves. I mean, I don’t love it. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Some people do.
S1: Can we go in, like, point by point and talk about some of the things that your investigation revealed? I mean, going into these calls, you already knew a fair bit about Exxon in their approach to climate change. Like in the 90s and 2000s, the company spent a lot of money sowing uncertainty about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change. In recent years, Exxon had said they were supporting a carbon tax. You kind of went in knowing these things. But how did your conversations flesh out what you already knew?
S2: The most interesting thing to me was his admission that day four early climate science, because that’s something that the company to this day continues to deny that they did. And here in this recording, you can hear Keith McCoy say, did we fight the science?
S3: Yes. Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Oh, did we hide our science? Absolutely not.
S2: Did what a lot of groups have been accusing them of is actually that they had done all this climate research, which kind of concluded that climate change was a significant threat and that they were contributing that quietly behind the scenes in academic circles. But then in public, they were speaking very loudly about problems with the science and sowing doubts about the climate science that they’ve always been keen to kind of 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 or, you know, here’s us speaking publicly about it. But the actual accusation is that they misled the public on climate science.
S3: Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true
S2: of any sort of reiterates the fact that they’ve done that through shadow groups, which we believe he’s referring to, the kind of this vast network of think tanks and other pressure groups,
S1: places like the Heritage Foundation.
S2: Yeah, exactly. Or the Heartland Institute. That really helped shift the whole debate in the US on climate change to kind of a very bad place on which Exxon played a leading role in and according to investigations, spend at least 30 million dollars funding. And so, you know, Mr. McCoy alludes to that. Yet the company continues to deny that any of those things. And so that was really powerful to me.
S1: Yeah, Keith McCoy really lays out a strategy for Exxon stuff like, you know, basically get the company itself away from anything like congressional testimony, like send in a trade group instead send in a third party who’s going to represent your interests, but not associate whatever’s going on with the brand itself and then use these shadow groups, as you said, to support whatever stances they have. It’s never really fully articulated what those groups are.
S2: So I think what they do now is work through groups like the American Petroleum Institute or the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association or the American Chemistry Council. And they do that for a few reasons. The first is, as Mr. McCoy says, is to send in the whipping boy. So if someone, for example, like Roxana is trying to do now progressive congressman. Yeah. If if they want to pull the CEO downwards in front of a congressional inquiry, they say that that’s just because that inquiry wants to be up there. Woods So what they try and do instead is send in the, quote, whipping boy to take the beating, and that is someone from the American Petroleum Institute.
S3: So API goes up to the Hill as API with coalitions. They get part of this. They try to bring in some other partners, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce, American Fuel and Petrochemical Associations, EPA. It’s just associations. Those companies now companies feed into that privately. When we have meetings, what the public face of it are the associations. They go to the Hill. They have these conversations that tamps down that the the the rhetoric, attempts to the excitement.
S2: You can see it clearly. And in the comments that he makes about forever chemicals,
S1: these are pollutants that persist in the environment that have been linked to cancers.
S3: Right now, this is forever chemicals. So once it’s in the waterways and it’s that, you know, there’s no cleaning it up. So, I mean, there has to be that component as well as how how how can you get it out of the waterways.
S2: He says we don’t want it to be known as the Exxon Mobil Chemical because because Exxon. I think their point is the Exxon’s brand is even more controversial than forever chemicals. And so they if they were involved, it would do the debate over forever chemicals a disservice. It’s quite an admission, really. And so instead, they’ve been working with the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council to try and kick the can down the road in terms of the efforts to legislate. It boasts that they have the idea of requesting a study into four other chemicals so that that would be a delay until actual regulations came in into force. And he said that they won that.
S1: So instead of actually regulating the chemicals, they’re just going to study them for a little bit of time. And it 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.
S2: Yeah, I mean, you see a lot you say a lot in the pesticides industry where the company will fight tooth and nail against a product being regulated and they’re just buying time because every day it’s not regulated or banned. They’re making more money and making a return on their investment, developing the project.
S1: When we come back, how this lobbying strategy is affecting the biggest legislative proposal in D.C. right now, the Biden infrastructure plan. One of the interesting things about your journalism is that you realize listening to it, that for Exxon, this isn’t just about fighting climate change or the science, it’s just about money. Dan Easley, the former Exxon lobbyist who you spoke to, he talked about how the Trump administration was a huge win for Exxon.
S3: What were the big wins you got out of Trump? You should Google Exxon Mobil announcement and Donald Trump. You know, the winds are such that it would be difficult to to to categorize them all. I mean,
S1: but the biggest win of all wasn’t anything environmental. It was a cut to the corporate tax rate, the
S3: reduction of the corporate rate and what was you know, you know, it’s probably worth at least Exxon. So. Yeah.
S1: And 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 was just interesting to me that it’s not just about climate change.
S2: No. And their approach to Biden’s American jobs plan, you know, the big two trillion infrastructure package. Yeah, the infrastructure package, it was just as much about making sure that they didn’t have to pay for any of this climate stuff as it was about the threat of that stuff in terms, you know, like subsidies for electric vehicles opposed to the business interests. So they’ve got a kind of very strong incentive to make sure that that bill was as small as possible.
S1: And Keith McCoy in particular is really transparent about how they’re doing that, which is just going to senators who they think are moderate or they may be influenced, Bill, especially someone like Joe Manchin or Shelley Cappato, who’s also a senator from the other senator from West Virginia and making the case. And Keith McCoy even says he’s speaking to their offices once a week, which seems like a lot.
S2: Yeah, exactly. And he also talks about how they’d set up a meeting between Biden’s close friend, Chris Coons, and the Exxon CEO so that they could get through to the president via his friend if they could. And I think some of the senators have said he has 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 the infrastructure package, which is a much smaller bill, which, like Mr. McCoy aimed for, has been stripped back largely to roads and bridges and which the vast majority of climate spending has been stripped out of. So it seems, you know, that could have been other forces at play, but it seems Exxon has gotten what it wants.
S1: Yeah, it’s funny because as you were doing your reporting and work, of course, the Democrats were in the middle of negotiating over this infrastructure bill. And there was a moment a couple weeks back where Joe Biden got in front of cameras and said, you know, we have a deal. Joe Manchin was there.
S3: None of us got what we always wanted. I clearly didn’t get all I wanted. They gave more than I think maybe they were inclined to give in the first place. But this reminds me.
S1: But I wonder if you saw that tape and you saw it a little bit differently, you kind of knew what might have gone into that deal?
S2: Yeah, I certainly did. I kind of saw that this is exactly the deal that Exxon wanted. And, you know, looking at that statement that was made, I think, on the White House lawns and seeing that many of the sentences that Mr. McCoy boasts of, having spoken to you, could kind of see how these compromise packages come to be quite, quite depressing stuff. To be honest,
S1: Exxon has responded to Lawrence testing. CEO Darin Woods said the comments of former Exxon lobbyist Dan Easley and current Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy are entirely inconsistent with the oil giants work. McCoy issued his own mea culpa on LinkedIn. He said he was embarrassed by his comments and that they don’t represent Exxon’s positions. Despite all this, Lawrence says it’s possible Exxon is nudging towards change. In the last year, Exxon competitor, BP, has made aggressive climate goals, aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. And now there’s evidence of tension inside Exxon itself. Earlier this summer, activist investors managed to replace three members of the company’s board of directors with people who want to push the company to focus on clean energy.
S2: I think their ability to continue to maintain that they’re like a good faith act on climate change is going to be very difficult for them. And, you know, really, they should be thinking about how they can, like, reflect on on the happenings over the last few months, whether that’s this story or the shareholder activism. And think about, you know, it’s the strategy. We’re currently pursuing the right one, because now speaking to investors like they don’t think it is. Hmm.
S1: That’s interesting. I mean, you sound kind of optimistic to me that you think like, OK, maybe there’s a turning point here,
S2: having seen a similar thing happen to BP and then change to an extent. You know, the jury’s still out on that. You know, I do think that companies like Exxon, there’s a possibility that they will shift. And I personally, I think that’s pretty important. You know, it’s a three hundred billion dollar company. It’s very influential. It’s very global. And if it were to kind of, I guess, see the light and become more of a force of good faith actor on these issues, then it was kind of, you know, be very helpful to efforts to tackle climate change. So I’m not naive. You know, it’s just one small development in a much sort of longer story about kind of how we tackle the climate crisis. But, you know, to tackle a big problem like climate change, you need lots of small things to happen. That’s all you can ask for. Is a reporter really that, like you, you shine a light on something and people sit up and pay attention.
S1: Lawrence Carter, thank you so much for joining me.
S2: Thank you so much for having me.
S1: Lawrence Carter is an investigative reporter for Unearthed, a journalism project from Greenpeace UK. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Carmel Delshad Danielle Hewitt, Alan Schwarz, Mary Wilson and Davis Land. We are led by Allison Benedictine, Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris at Mary desk. If you wanna go find me on Twitter. Meantime, I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.