Keith McCoy thought he was talking to a job recruiter. Speaking on a Zoom video call in May, the longtime Washington lobbyist talked openly about efforts to blunt the Biden administration’s climate agenda on behalf of the nation’s largest oil and gas company, ExxonMobil.
In reality, it was not job interview. It was a sting conducted by Greenpeace UK, an environmental group more than 3,000 miles away.
The release of the explosive, secretly recorded video has sent a shock wave across the Atlantic and through Washington as the White House and Congress debate a major infrastructure package – and the extent to which it should invest in clean energy that directly compete with oil companies like Exxon.
McCoy, the company’s senior director for federal relations, described how ExxonMobil selects senators on which to apply pressure. The oil firm’s public support for a tax on carbon emissions, he said, was an “easy talking point” with little chance of ever passing Congress. “Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans and the cynical side of me says, ‘Yeah, we kind of know that.'”
The excerpts, aired this week by the British broadcaster Channel 4, have led to a rare mea culpa from the chief executive of the normally unapologetic Exxon.
In a blog post Friday, CEO Darren Woods called the recorded comments “entirely inconsistent with our commitment to the environment, transparency and what our employees and management team have worked toward since I became CEO four years ago.” He reiterated the company’s public position in support of the Paris climate agreement and carbon pricing. The company declined to comment further.
Already, one top Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Ro Khanna of California, is asking for Woods to testify in Congress broadly about the company’s communication on climate change, while lawmakers named in the video are distancing themselves from the company.
“It’s a confirmation of what many on the Hill and around the country have suspected,” Khanna, chair of the House Oversight Committee subcommittee on the environment, said in an interview on Friday. “And that is that the fossil fuel industry, and Exxon specifically, has been engaged in a misinformation campaign, manipulating public opinion to deny the impact of climate change.”
The clips arrive just weeks after Exxon spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to keep a slate of new independent directors off its board. Activist hedge fund leaders and pensions managers who pushed for the new board members say the company has failed to deal with climate change and plan for decarbonizing its operations.
In the video, McCoy argued Biden’s goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions are “insane.” The president campaigned on making the country carbon neutral by the middle of the century. “We’re playing defense, because President Biden is talking about this big infrastructure package and he’s going to pay for it by increasing corporate taxes,” he said in the recording. McCoy did not respond to requests for comment.
McCoy also admitted that Exxon funded outside organizations that sought to stymie past government efforts to halt raising temperatures. “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 illegal about that. We were looking out for our investments.”
And he described targeting Senate moderates, as well as those up for re-election, even as several of the Democratic lawmakers named in the video – including Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana – say they never spoke with McCoy during the bipartisan infrastructure talks.
“At no time during the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations did Kyrsten speak with or meet with this individual – nor would she be influenced by anything other than what is best for Arizona,” Sinema spokesman John LaBombard said.
McCoy claimed to talk every week to the staff of Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but the senator’s office said McCoy was aggrandizing himself during what he thought was a job interview.
“Throughout his entire public service career, Manchin and those who work for him have always had an open door policy and a willingness to learn from those with varying and diverse opinions,” his office said in a statement to The Washington Post. “But recently an Exxon employee greatly exaggerated his relationship and influence with Senator Manchin’s staff in an attempt to advance his own career only to be misled by an activist organization with an agenda of their own.”
Progressive activists seized on the video to urge Democrats to ignore Exxon’s concerns and pass major climate legislation. “It’s time for President Biden to pick a side: Exxon or the American majority?” Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, and Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a joint statement.
Through much of the 1990s and 2000s, Exxon contended the science of climate change was too uncertain to act upon – even after its in-house scientists pioneered early greenhouse gas research decades prior. Now, the company admits climate change is real, presenting itself in ads as part of the solution with its research into algae-based biofuel.
For months, Khanna’s subcommittee has been planning to hold a hearing in the fall on the spread of misinformation about climate change, threatening to subpoena Exxon if it did not cooperate.
“They have a self-interest to participate, to clear their name,” he said. “If they refuse to participate, and if it comes to a subpoena, that would be a pretty big indictment and would undermine everything Darren Woods said.”
The recording raises questions about the ethics of using subterfuge to get sources to speak candidly – a practice condoned at times in British journalism but generally off-limits for mainstream American reporters.
The tape was three years in the making, according to Lawrence Carter, a reporter at Unearthed, a Greenpeace UK affiliate. He began looking for ways to investigate the energy industry’s lobbying on climate change after several oil majors, including Exxon, came out in support of the Paris climate accord, which calls for capping warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
“With lobbying stories, so much of it is happening behind closed doors,” said Carter, who orchestrated the recording, feeding questions to an interviewer Unearthed hired. “We felt going undercover was the only way we were going to really reveal (Exxon’s lobbying).”
“It’s not something you would do lightly because it is an invasion of privacy,” he added.
Industry codes for British broadcasters and newspaper are more permissive than U.S. publications, according to Glenda Cooper, a senior journalism lecturer at City, University of London. Intrusions such as an undercover recording can be seen as a last resort for information deemed to be in the public interest.
“It is seen as part of the investigative journalist’s tool kit, if it can be justified,” she said. “It’s not the first thing that you do.”