All the billions ExxonMobil spent on PR went up in flames this week after a sting operation by Greenpeace recorded one of the oil giant's lobbyists talking about what goes on behind the scenes — sabotaging climate legislation, secretly manufacturing cancer-causing chemicals, and using trade groups as "whipping boys" to evade public scrutiny.
"It's pretty damning stuff," said Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard researcher who investigates fossil fuel propaganda.
The lobbyist, Keith McCoy, has been representing Exxon on Capitol Hill for eight years, chatting with senators as a senior director of the company's federal affairs team. Earlier this year, an undercover reporter with Unearthed, an investigative site run by Greenpeace, posed as a recruiter and got in touch with McCoy.
In the resulting Zoom job interview in May — segments of which first aired on the British network Channel 4 on Wednesday June 30 — McCoy outlines the ways that Exxon is actively sabotaging climate legislation and trying to avoid public scrutiny. A second installment of the interview aired on Thursday revealed that Exxon manufacturers and uses so-called "forever chemicals"linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and more — and used the American Petroleum Institute, a trade organization, to lobby against legislation that would regulate the chemicals.
The oil giant has a well-established history of sowing public doubt about the science of climate change despite knowing its catastrophic potential. But in recent years, Exxon has taken some climate-friendly stances, backing a carbon tax, supporting the Paris Agreement, and committing to help the Biden administration and Congress pass new laws to take on climate change. McCoy's comments, however, suggest that was all for show.
In the video recording, McCoy admits that Exxon fought to undermine climate science and legislation. "Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes," he tells the undercover reporter. "Did we hide our science? Absolutely not. Did we join some of these 'shadow groups' to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that's true. But there's nothing illegal about that. You know, we were looking out for our investments, we were looking out for our shareholders."
McCoy talks about his cozy relationships with members of Congress. He apparently has weekly chats with Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia who has received tens of thousands of dollars from Exxon and its trade associations, and names 10 other senators he calls "crucial" to Exxon's business. McCoy explains how Exxon's lobbying helped remove the "negative stuff" — in other words, the landmark climate change measures — from President Joe Biden's infrastructure bill currently in Congress.
During an interview on Channel 4 Thursday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, remarked how rare it was to hear about Exxon's intervention in climate policy as it was happening, as opposed to finding out about it from investigations years later. "There is an understanding that there's a dark underbelly of Washington that works this way," she said. "Rarely do we see it exposed in real-time of real legislation right before us in Congress."
McCoy also says in the recording that the company's support for a carbon tax is simply a "talking point" to avoid public pressure. Given the lack of appetite for this kind of tax, he says, it'll never happen: "The bottom line is it's going to take political courage, political will in order to get something done. And that just doesn't exist in politics. It just doesn't."
The secret tapes "prove straight from the horse's mouth, straight from an Exxon insider, what our and others' research has indicated for so long," Supran said. "Although Exxon and the fossil fuel industry's tactics have evolved, the end goal remains the same, and that is to stop action on climate change."
In a response to the debacle, Exxon's CEO condemned and apologized for McCoy's comments. Darren Woods said that the statements "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," adding that McCoy's remarks were "entirely inconsistent with the way we expect our people to conduct themselves." On LinkedIn, McCoy wrote that he was "deeply embarrassed" by what he had said on camera.
Supran suggested that Exxon's apology was more of a "sorry we got caught" sentiment. "This guy's paid to further the position of the company on Capitol Hill, and the idea that he's so out of the loop that he's misrepresenting the company seems quite far-fetched," he said.