Five Things We Learned About Exxon’s Climate Sabotage — and One We Didn’t

Published Jul 12, 2021


Climate and Energy

New videos from undercover reporters posing as recruiters reveal how corporate lobbyists get what they want in Washington.

New videos from undercover reporters posing as recruiters reveal how corporate lobbyists get what they want in Washington.

A headline-grabbing exposé by Greenpeace UK’s Unearthed project has given us a peek at how fossil fuel giant Exxon uses its lobbying muscle in Washington. 

Posing as corporate recruiters, Unearthed recorded a series of interviews with two high-ranking company officials: Keith McCoy, a senior director in Exxon’s Washington DC lobbying team, and Dan Easley, Exxon’s chief White House lobbyist during the Trump years.

Of course, we already knew that companies like Exxon pressure lawmakers to get what they want. But the videos include valuable details about the company’s strategy and the lawmakers who carry water for corporate polluters.

Slashing Climate Provisions from the Infrastructure Plan Was Exxon’s Goal

After unveiling a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, President Biden shifted to backing a weaker ‘bipartisan’ compromise with a handful of senators. Most of the climate-focused proposals were gone — and that’s how Exxon wanted it. McCoy explained that the company specifically lobbied a small group of senators to slash the spending proposal with the hopes that “the negative stuff starts to come out.” The company was motivated by their agenda to block clean energy development, but also the push to raise corporate tax rates.

Senator Joe Manchin is the ‘Kingmaker’ For Fossil Fuel Execs

Most analysts see so-called moderate West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin as the crucial vote on any Senate climate or infrastructure proposal a truly troubling scenario, given his long, sorry track record on climate and clean energy. Exxon is just as aware of this as everyone else; McCoy called Manchin the “kingmaker” and boasted that he is in touch with Manchin’s office “every week.”

McCoy also identified ten other senators “crucial” for advancing Exxon’s agenda: Shelly Moore Capito (R-WVA), Krysten Sinema (D-AZ), Jon Tester (D-MT), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), John Barrasso (R-WY), John Cornyn (R-TX), Steve Daines (R-MT), Chris Coons (D-DE), Mark Kelley (D-AZ), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Secret Lobbying Push on Forever Chemicals 

McCoy told Unearthed that the company was behind a lobbying effort to stop tighter regulations of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ like PFAS that are contaminating water systems around the country. Exxon, he explained, carried out this agenda through industry trade associations, so as not to further tarnish the company’s reputation.

Exxon, according to McCoy, has already had some success. While the company was alarmed by legislation to rein in PFAS (“We see this legislation, we’re like, holy crap”), McCoy touted that the company was able to slow things down by pushing for a federal government study:

“Lo and behold we got a study, we got it passed and that completely lowered the temperature, there’s been very little talk about PFAS.”

Exxon’s Plastics Pushback Banks On Lawmakers’ Willingness To Believe Them

Exxon is also deeply involved with undermining efforts to rein in plastics pollution a hugely profitable part of the company’s overall business. Instead of any real substantive plan, McCoy explained that it was key that they have  “some talking points” to share with Congress members.  For Exxon, the real goal is to tell lawmakers that, just like with climate change, swift action is simply impossible:

“It’s just like on climate change right… when it started you started to have conversations to say ‘Well you can’t completely change the electric grid from coal and gas into wind and here’s why.’ It’s the same conversation: ‘you can’t ban plastics because here’s why,’  or ‘you can’t, you know, legislate 100% recycling, because here’s why.” 

When it comes to actual legislation, he was clear about Exxon’s priorities:

“We would prefer model legislation that the American Chemistry Council would put forth as opposed to, say, a super progressive member of Congress that puts forth a comprehensive piece of plastics legislation. We prefer it come from us rather than from them.” 

This is why we must fight for genuinely progressive policies that will protect us from further climate chaos, and not the watered-down version industry insiders push via their favored lawmakers. 

Backing a Carbon Tax Was Always a Cynical Ploy

McCoy also explained that the company’s public advocacy for a carbon tax was based on the understanding that the policy would never actually happen:

“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? Well, we’re for a carbon tax.”

While this admission surprised some climate watchers and certainly disappointed carbon tax proponents, it was fairly clear that this was the strategy all along. Food & Water Watch has long argued a carbon tax would be regressive and ineffective, and that corporate support for it was a PR stunt designed to blunt more substantive climate action that would actually hurt the interests of fossil fuel corporations.

And Here’s What’s Really Not News

Finding out that a major fossil fuel corporation pressures lawmakers to stop bold climate legislation is infuriating, but entirely predictable. Certainly, that is the case with ExxonMobil; the “Exxon Knew” campaign, for example, featured in-depth reporting on the company’s decades-long understanding of the climate crisis, and its profit-protecting decision to fund so-called ‘climate skepticism’ to undermine a transition off fossil fuels. 

The fact that Exxon plays dirty to keep its climate-destroying stronghold isn’t news. But for once we are hearing an honest explanation of the company’s political strategy, and what it considers to be its key victories. 

Exxon is showing us who they are. We should believe them and fight to stop them.

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