“We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders.”
-Exxon senior lobbyist Keith McCoy, explaining to an undercover reporter why the company lied about climate science and sought to kill climate policy for the last 40 years.
It was an idea borne out of frustration. For years, he and his editor Damian Kahya at Greenpeace U.K.’s investigative journalism outlet Unearthed had been investigating Big Oil companies’ privately lobbying activity as they publicly expressed support for the Paris Agreement. The journalists were trying to show what many already knew: that fossil fuel companies routinely lie about their dedication to solving climate change, to placate the public while they continue to profit from pollution.
The effort was working, to an extent. In 2019, for example, Carter found that BP was aggressively lobbying the Trump administration to roll back regulations limiting methane, a powerful climate pollutant and the primary component of natural gas. Meanwhile, BP was publicly rolling out a new advertising campaign about how it was “working harder than ever to create cleaner, greener, smarter energy,” including natural gas.
But it wasn’t enough. People weren’t paying attention.
“There’s only so much you can reveal through more traditional journalist techniques like information requests, regulatory filings, and speaking to sources,” Carter told HEATED by phone on Wednesday. “We were hitting a brick wall. So we decided there was a strong public interest in going undercover to meet with lobbyists at Exxon to ask them straight-up what type of lobbying they’re doing.”
The journalists, in other words, took a page out of Exxon’s own playbook: they chose deception to achieve their goals. Kahya had the idea of posing as a corporate headhunter—a consultant trying to hire lobbyists for a new, lucrative venture. Carter prepared a 50-page document justifying the need to go undercover. They researched extensively the ins and outs of consultancy. Eventually, Carter reached out to Exxon senior lobbyist Keith McCoy, asking for a zoom call to discuss potential opportunities.
McCoy agreed, and the call was set. Still, Carter was unsure how the discussion would go. “Because we did the research, we knew what Exxon was doing,” he said. “The question was whether anyone would admit to it.”
They did. People are paying attention now.
Carter’s secretly-recorded conversation with Exxon senior lobbyist Keith McCoy aired on the U.K.’s Channel 4 news at about 2 p.m. EST on Wednesday. In it, McCoy admits that Exxon denied climate science and joined “shadow groups” to stop climate policy; that the company effectively lobbied Democratic and Republic Senators to remove climate provisions from the bipartisan infrastructure bill; they Exxon has 11 “key” U.S. Senators they rely on, including the “kingmaker” Joe Manchin, who Exxon meets with “weekly;” that Exxon uses third-party groups like The American Petroleum Institute as “whipping boys” to defend its more indefensible climate positions; and that Exxon only publicly supports a carbon tax because they believe it will never pass.
I spoke with Carter around 5:30 p.m., and asked how the reaction to the story had been so far.
“It has landed as I hoped it would,” he said.
Unearthed @UEREVEALED: How Exxon held back climate action for decades, and is still doing it today. We went undercover with Exxon’s lobbyists to expose the truth. Watch and share. https://t.co/yICeai1Sop
Channel 4 News @Channel4NewsExclusive: A senior ExxonMobil lobbyist has been captured on camera claiming that the oil giant is waging a secret war on climate change legislation. The covert recordings filmed by Greenpeace UK @UE lift the lid on the secretive world of US oil lobbying. https://t.co/6EUZcjZ0Ew
By Thursday morning, the story had already been picked up The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal. The latter two centered their coverage around Exxon’s disavowal of McCoy’s claims, as well as claims made by Dan Easley, Exxon’s executive branch and regulatory team lead until February.
“Comments made by the individuals in no way represent the company’s position on a variety of issues, including climate policy and our firm commitment that carbon pricing is important to addressing climate change,” Exxon CEO Darren Woods said, according to Bloomberg.
In a statement to the Times, Woods went even further. He apologized. “We condemn the statements and are deeply apologetic for them, including comments regarding interactions with elected officials. They are entirely inconsistent with the way we expect our people to conduct themselves. We were shocked by these interviews and stand by our commitments to working on finding solutions to climate change.”
McCoy also responded to the story with an apology posted on his LinkedIn on Wednesday, which said his statements “clearly do not represent ExxonMobils positions” and that some of his comments were “taken out of context.”
The statements differ greatly in tone than the ones Exxon originally gave to Channel 4. Before the public backlash began, the company did not strongly disavow McCoy’s claims. Instead, the company told Channel 4 that they “have supported climate science for decades.” They attacked Greenpeace directly, saying they were “waging a multi-decade campaign” against their company and industry. They also defended their lobbying practices by saying they were legal. “[Our] lobbying fully complies with all laws and [is] publicly disclosed on a quarterly basis.”
It’s reminiscent of how McCoy himself defends the company’s actions in the secret recording. “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. … Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true,” he said. “But there’s nothing, there’s nothing illegal about that.”
Carter isn’t so sure. “[McCoy] says none of it was illegal. But there is ongoing litigation regarding Exxon’s misleading statements on climate change. So that’s yet to be confirmed,” he said. Indeed, Exxon is defending itself from several lawsuits alleging its climate deception amounts to fraud—and that the company should be made to pay for the cost.
But even beyond that, Carter said, illegality was never the core issue. “Companies like Exxon go to quite a length to present themselves as good corporate citizens,” he said. “How then is the bar whether something is illegal? Surely the bar is higher. It’s about doing things that are right and good for humanity.”
Out of the 11 Senators that McCoy said are key to Exxon for removing and/or diminishing climate change measures from Biden’s infrastructure bill, a majority are Democrats.
Here are the Democrats: Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Jon Tester (D-MT), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Mark Kelly (D-AZ).
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