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Exxon faces heat after lobbyists' comments on climate change cause furor

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Exxon Mobil is on the defensive after a lobbyist's description of the energy giant's activities, captured on covertly recorded video, created a public uproar and drew condemnation from lawmakers.

Video clips released by Greenpeace U.K. last week show a gaping chasm between the oil giant's stated support for reducing the use of fossil fuels and its lobbyist's private statements about the company's efforts to water down climate-change legislation.

The clips, which prompted a rare apology from the company's CEO, offer a preview of the rocky road ahead for Exxon. The company, once the world's most valuable enterprise in the world, has lost billions on its oil and gas investments, and faces scrutiny from lawmakers and pressure from climate hawks on its board.

Reporters for Unearthed, the journalism arm of Greenpeace U.K., posed as headhunters for an energy client in order to interview two Exxon lobbyists about their work.

In the videos, one lobbyist described the company's public push for a carbon tax as simply a "talking point." The lobbyist also took credit for sowing doubt on the science behind climate change and for watering down legislation that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while raising corporate taxes. 

Another Exxon lobbyist, who has since left the company, crowed about the company's legislative "wins" during the Trump administration and said it saved "billions" after corporate tax rates were cut in 2018.

'A carbon tax is not going to happen' by Greenpeace Unearthed on Vimeo

"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," Keith McCoy, a senior director for federal relations at Exxon, said in one video clip.

Pressed by the interviewer, he said: "No … a carbon tax is not going to happen."

"It's an easy talking point to say, I'm for a carbon tax. That's a talking point. That is, in my mind, an effective advocacy tool."

Fighting science by Greenpeace Unearthed on Vimeo

McCoy also referenced Exxon's attempts to discredit scientific evidence that burning coal, oil and gas causes global warming. 

"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. But there's nothing illegal about that. You know, we were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders," he said.

A tally from the Union of Concerned Scientists has found that Exxon has given at least $30 million to various advocacy groups over the years. The recipients, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Frontiers of Freedom, the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation, promote the use of fossil fuels and deny climate science, as well as advocate against government regulation of businesses.

"Caught red-handed"

There is nothing illegal about Exxon's tactics. But the sharp divergence between McCoy's statements and Exxon's public support of cutting emissions drew fire from some lawmakers.

Representative Ro Khanna, who chairs the subcommittee on environmental oversight in the House, promised to haul Exxon in for questioning. "This tape only solidifies what we already knew: fossil fuel companies have lied to the public, regulators, & Congress about their products' dangers for years," the California Democrat said on Twitter

In an interview with E&E News, Khanna called for an "accounting" of the dark money funding climate-change disinformation. 

"Exxon got caught red-handed in the gap between its public posture & its politics in Congress," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, tweeted. "The problem is not the leak, it's that gap; plus Exxon's refusal to come clean, disclose its decades of climate denial and obstruction, & prove that it's over."

This is hardly the first time Exxon's commitment to fighting climate change has been questioned. A 2015 investigation by InsideClimate News concluded that Exxon scientists have understood since the late 1970s — a decade before climate change became a public issue — how burning fossil fuels lead to changes in the Earth's atmosphere, but the company worked to suppress that information and cast doubt on its veracity.

For many years, Exxon used different metrics to describe carbon pollution to investors than it did internally, effectively making its activities seem more profitable and less environmentally harmful than they actually were. Those discrepancies prompted New York State to sue the company in 2019, alleging investor fraud. A judge later ruled in favor of Exxon, finding the company's approach to climate change did not break securities law.

Exxon also often blames individual consumers for climate change while downplaying its role, according to research published earlier this year in One Earth, a magazine of peer-reviewed research on environmental topics.

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"Never involved" in climate policy

In a statement to Greenpeace that the environmental organization published along with its undercover investigation on Tuesday, Exxon emphasized that its actions were legal. It also accused Greenpeace of making "factual misstatements" and said it "distorted" Exxon's position.

By Wednesday, after the undercover video had attracted media attention, the company issued an apology and distanced itself from its lobbyists' statements in the interviews. 

"We condemn the statements and are deeply apologetic for them, including comments regarding interactions with elected officials," CEO Darren Woods said in a statement. "They are entirely inconsistent with the way we expect our people to conduct themselves. We were shocked by these interviews and stand by our commitments to working on finding solutions to climate change." 

Woods in his statement said the comments captured on video "in no way represent the company's position on a variety of issues, including climate policy" and that the two lobbyists "were never involved in developing the company's policy positions on the issues discussed."

McCoy apologized on Wednesday, writing on LinkedIn, "I am deeply embarrassed by my comments and that I allowed myself to fall for Greenpeace's deception. My statements clearly do not represent ExxonMobil's positions on important public policy issues. While some of my comments were taken out of context, there is no excuse for what I said or how I said it."

Neither Exxon nor McCoy responded to messages seeking further comment.

LinkedIn screenshot

"This pulls out the rug" 

Exxon's revelations are bad news for other oil and gas companies, environmentalists say.

"They are the most prominent supporter of a carbon tax, and it's a position behind which many companies have rallied. This pulls out the rug from that position in a really critical way," said Andrew Logan, senior director of oil and gas at Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainable investment.

Earlier this year, Exxon shareholders stunned Wall Street when they voted to install three climate activists on the company's board, against the company's objections. Logan predicted more such battles, potentially aided by new rules now being discussed by Wall Street regulators requiring companies to disclose their climate risks.

"Getting the [Securities and Exchange Commission] to mandate climate disclosure that is auditable, and subject to, essentially, perjury laws, will go a long way," Logan said.

He added, "Ultimately what's going to change Exxon is for actual climate policy to be passed."

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