Exxon's Top Lobbyist Reveals Oil Giant’s Campaign Against Climate Action

Biig Oil's Campaign Against Climate Change

There's an old saying that "a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth." On June 30th, Unearthed, Greenpeace UK's investigative platform, released footage of its secretly recorded interview with one of ExxonMobil's DC lobbyists, Keith McCoy. In the video, McCoy (who thinks he's being interviewed for a job) reveals what some climate activists have feared for a long time: that the oil company has endorsed a carbon tax because it knows that bill has no chance of passage, while they stand in the way of other more politically practical climate actions.

Some of what McCoy reveals on camera isn't as shocking in and of itself. McCoy says the company has historically funded anti-climate campaigns through dark money groups, works Capitol Hill, and prefers to have its trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute absorb body blows on its behalf and, as McCoy says, act as "whipping boys" deflecting scrutiny on Capitol Hill. He suggests that Exxon was a decisive player in the effort to keep the biggest climate measures out of a bipartisan 60 vote package on infrastructure.

Candidly, that strains credulity: in order to win the 10 Republican votes to hit a filibuster-proof 60, the Senators had to work with Republicans from oil and gas states who didn't need a push from ExxonMobil to keep out the most progressive climate actions and defer those for a bill Senate Democrats hope to pass with a 51 vote margin under Budget Reconciliation.

Greenpeace Unearthed: How Exxon held back climate action for decades, and is still doing it today, July 2, 2021

Why This Matters

ExxonMobil's CEO Darren Woods released a public apology insisting that what McCoy said does not reflect the company's positions. Analysts remain unconvinced -- according to Bloomberg his apology has many problems.

But What Are The Key Takeaways?

First, the leaked video has put ExxonMobil's credibility and integrity at stake when it comes to the company's PR campaigns in support of climate action and alternative energy. In some ways, that's enormously helpful: it puts pressure on the company to put up or shut up on delivering climate answers and being part of the solution. Vague platitudes simply won't pass the smell test.

Second, it punctures the balloon on the carbon tax -- for now. Most progressive climate advocates would gladly join arms with Exxon on a climate tax -- if it brought with it any Republican votes. To this point, it hasn't convinced a single Republican Senator to sign on.

Third, it reveals a big gap in the climate conversation. Exxon endorsed the Paris Climate Accords and it now has Board Members who are aggressive climate change advocates. BP says it stands for "Beyond Petroleum." But how do we measure whether oil companies are actually engaging in a transition? Why do we raise that point? It's something World War Zero is going to dive into more deeply, but here's the bottom line: the biggest difference the energy sector could make would be for the largest oil and gas companies -- with their global footprint -- to accelerate the transition. Their workforces are massive. Their R&D budgets are enormous. If they do get religion on the transition -- like when Walmart switched to low-energy lightbulbs and sustainable products -- the global supply chain impacts would be huge. So how do we track it? And is this a moment where pressure -- for example, from Exxon's new activist board members -- might result in pressure on the company to endorse the climate reconciliation bill that could actually pass the Senate with 51 votes?

Fourth, and finally, ExxonMobil's lobbying is legal. Big companies are going to engage Capitol Hill. Yes, America's campaign finance system is broken. But activists and the clean energy sector can multiply our own political power if we choose to do so -- even as we press for a system where no lobbyist can credibly claim an outsized influence on our political system if we don't want it to.