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ExxonMobil lobbyist revealed how oil giant buys influence to weaken climate legislation

A senior ExxonMobil lobbyist has been captured on camera revealing how the oil giant is using its power and influence to water down US climate legislation.

House Democrats who had been threatening to kill the Biden administration’s budget reconciliation proposal have been funded by industries likely to be targeted by the legislation.

ExxonMobil continues to fight efforts to tackle climate change in the United States, despite publicly claiming to support the Paris climate agreement, an undercover investigation by Unearthed has found.

A senior lobbyist for Exxon told an undercover reporter that the company had been working to weaken key aspects of President Joe Biden’s flagship initiative on climate change, the American Jobs Plan.

The explosive footage was obtained by Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigative platform, who posed as head-hunters to obtain the information from one of ExxonMobil’s most senior Washington lobbyists.

The recordings appear to reveal the secretive behind-the-scenes activities of a lobbyist for a company that claims in public to support action on climate change, while fighting against legislative attempts to tackle it.

ExxonMobil say they “have supported climate science for decades” and accuse Greenpeace of “waging a multi-decade campaign” against their company and industry.

They insist their “lobbying fully comply with all laws and are publicly disclosed on a quarterly basis.”

Keith McCoy is a senior ExxonMobil lobbyist on Capitol Hill and has represented the company in its liaison with the US Congress for the last eight years.

Greenpeace UK’s Unearthed platform posed as head-hunters looking to hire a Washington D.C. lobbyist for a major client. They approached McCoy, who agreed to speak over Zoom.

During the covert recordings, McCoy claims the company secretly fought against legislative action on climate change using third-party organizations and that he lobbied key senators to remove and/or diminish climate change measures from Biden’s infrastructure and jobs bill as it proceeds through the legislative process.

McCoy also said that he regards trade bodies like the American Petroleum Institute as “whipping boys” in order to avoid public scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

During the virtual meeting held in May, the investigators asked McCoy questions about ExxonMobil’s current and historical lobbying on environmental issues.

McCoy claims that ExxonMobil has aggressively fought science to deny climate change in order to maximize profit and shareholder return. He alleges that the giant oil company joined “shadow groups” to pursue climate change denial.

“Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. 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,” said McCoy. “But there’s nothing, there’s nothing illegal about that. We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders.”

ExxonMobil released a statement asserting that they “have supported climate science for decades.”

McCoy likened the approach to lobbying congressmen to the way fishermen target fish, claiming that ExxonMobil puts out “bait” and then “reels in” politicians on issues like carbon tax, electric vehicles, chemicals, taxation and infrastructure.

“When you have an opportunity to talk to a member of Congress, I liken it to fishing, right?,” said McCoy. “You know you have bait, you throw that bait out. And they say: ‘Oh, you want to talk about infrastructure, yeah.’ And then you start to reel them in and you start to have these conversations about federal leasing programs, you start to have these conversations about a carbon tax. You know, it’s all these opportunities that you use and to use the fishing analogy again just to kind of reel them in.”

“I make sure I get them the right information that they need so they look good,” said McCoy. “And then they help me out. They’re a captive audience. They know they need you. And I need them.”

He says lobbyists aim to have a direct relationship with a member of congress, adding: “You want to be able to go to the chief… and say we need congressman so and so to be able to either introduce this bill, we need him to make a floor statement, we need him to send a letter. You name it, we’ve asked for everything.”

McCoy named 11 senators who he says are “crucial” to ExxonMobil: Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Senator Jon Tester, Senator Maggie Hassan, Senator John Barrasso, Senator John Cornyn, Senator Steve Daines, Senator Chris Coons, Senator Mark Kelly and Senator Marco Rubio.

Offered a chance to respond, all 11 the senators identified by McCoy declined to comment, and while there is no suggestion of illegality, the brazen exchange of favors and campaign contributions has been widely called “legal bribery” by many reform advocates.

Federal Election Commission (FEC) data shows that nine of those senators (Senators Maggie Hassan and Mark Kelly) have received financial contributions from ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil insists “our lobbying efforts fully comply with all laws and are publicly disclosed on a quarterly basis”.

McCoy described Manchin as “the Kingmaker” in the Senate and he says he spoke to the West Virginia lawmaker’s office on a weekly basis.

The FEC data shows Manchin has received at least $12,500 from the ExxonMobil Political Action Committee in declared disbursements since the beginning of the 2011-12 election cycle.

McCoy described how a “big piece of [his] job is education and advocacy” and says that in his work on behalf of ExxonMobil he argues that US government programs to roll out electric vehicles are unrealistic.

“The research and development conversation has taken us a long way because of climate change,” said McCoy. “And there is a struggle to find solutions and to get the reductions that they’re looking for. And you’re not going to be able to just switch to battery operated vehicles or wind for your electricity. And just having that conversation around why that’s not possible in the next 10 years is critically important to the work that we do.”

McCoy described a lobbying strategy in which he claims ExxonMobil uses third parties to mask its interests from public view and accountability.

“We don’t want it to be us, to have these conversations, especially in a hearing,” said McCoy. “It’s getting our associations to step in and have those conversations and answer those tough questions and be for, the lack of a better term, the whipping boy for some of these members of Congress.”

McCoy claims that ExxonMobil lobbied Congress to dilute the climate provisions of Biden’s infrastructure investment package.

“That’s a completely different conversation when you start to stick to roads and bridges,” said McCoy. “And instead of a $2 trillion bill, it’s an $800 billion dollar bill. If you lower that threshold, you stick to highways and bridges then a lot of the negative stuff starts to come out.”

“Why would you put in something on emissions reductions on climate change to oil refineries in a highway bill? So, people say yeah that doesn’t make any sense, so then you get to the germane of saying that shouldn’t be in this bill,” McCoy said.

ExxonMobil responded by claiming the company’s discussion on the bill were not accurately portrayed, saying: “Our lobbying efforts are related to a tax burden that could disadvantage us businesses.”

McCoy appears to suggest that ExxonMobil’s public support for a carbon tax is girded by the conviction it will never make it through the legislative process, allowing the company to “support” it in order to appear green.

“I will tell you there is not an appetite for a carbon tax,” said McCoy. “It is a non-starter. 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. We can say well what is ExxonMobil for? Well we’re for a carbon tax.”

“Carbon tax is not gonna happen,” said McCoy. “I have always said, and I’ve worked on climate change issues for twenty years. There’s a lot of talk around it and 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.

Purporting to speak on behalf of ExxonMobil, McCoy also expressed a corporate view that, contrary to science, natural gas is a clean energy source.

“On a clean electricity standard, we think natural gas will play a key role in anything ,” said McCoy. “And not just as a bridge fuel. We think it is a low emission energy source and should be part of a clean electricity standard.”

“Greenpeace has waged a multi-decade campaign against our company and industry, which has included false claims and unlawful actions at our facilities as well as those of other companies around the world,” said a spokesperson for ExxonMobil. “Our lobbying efforts are related to a tax burden that could disadvantage U.S. businesses, and we have made that position known publicly. ExxonMobil stands by our position that increased taxes on American businesses make the U.S. less competitive.”

“We have been clear in supporting an efficient, economy-wide price on carbon as the best way to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement,” said the spokesperson. “Greenpeace and others have distorted our position on climate science and our support for effective policy solutions. We have a responsibility to our customers, employees, communities and shareholders to represent their interests in public policy discussions that impact our business.”

A second Exxon lobbyist, Dan Easley – who left the company in January after working as its chief White House lobbyist throughout the Trump administration – laughed when asked by an undercover reporter if the company had achieved many policy wins under Trump, before outlining victories on fossil fuel permitting and the renegotiation of the NAFTA trade agreement.

“The wins are such that it would be difficult to categorise them all,” he said, adding that the biggest victory was Trump’s reduction in the corporate tax rate, which was “probably worth billions to Exxon”.

Unearthed reporters posed as recruitment consultants looking to hire a Washington DC lobbyist for a major client and approached McCoy and Easley for meetings over Zoom. During the meetings, the undercover reporter asked about Exxon’s current and historical lobbying on environmental issues.

The investigative team said that neither McCoy nor Easley were necessarily seeking a new job, but each was willing to talk and provide information to the purported recruiters.

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