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Exxon Exposed: Greenpeace Tricks Top Lobbyists into Naming Senators They Use to Block Climate Action

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Image Credit: Greenpeace Unearthed

Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna, the chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment, has announced plans to ask the CEOs of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to testify before the committee about their role in blocking congressional action to address the climate emergency. Khanna made the request after Greenpeace UK released a video of two lobbyists discussing Exxon’s secretive efforts to fight climate initiatives in Washington, revealing how the oil giant supported a carbon tax to appear proactive about climate change while privately acknowledging that such a tax has no chance of being passed. We feature the complete video and speak to one of the activists involved with it. “The reality is that almost nothing has changed in the Exxon playbook,” says Charlie Kronick, senior climate adviser at Greenpeace UK. “This has been going on for decades.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna, the chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment, has announced plans to ask the CEOs of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to testify before the committee about their role in blocking congressional action to address the climate emergency. Congressmember Khanna made the request after Greenpeace UK released a stunning video, where two top lobbyists discussed Exxon’s secretive efforts to fight climate initiatives in Washington. This is the video produced by Unearthed, an investigative journalism unit at Greenpeace UK.

DAN EASLEY: You know, the wins are such that it would be difficult to categorize them all.

KEITH McCOY: Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing — there’s nothing illegal about that.

NARRATOR: This is Keith McCoy, one of ExxonMobil’s top Capitol Hill lobbyists. And this is Dan Easley. Until February this year, he was Exxon’s leading White House lobbyist. Unearthed posed as recruitment consultants and told them we had a client who admired their work. Then we interviewed them on Zoom and asked them to tell us what they and the other lobbyists at Exxon have been up to.

ExxonMobil is so powerful that the management suite at its global headquarters is known as the “God Pod.” Until recently, it was the biggest, richest corporation in the history of the world. For decades, critics have claimed Exxon deploys cynical, aggressive lobbying techniques to pull the strings of government, while running clandestine campaigns to block action on climate change, discredit its opponents and distract attention from its polluting activities. But not one of its serving senior executives has ever come clean about the Exxon playbook — until now.

Here’s what Dan Easley and Keith McCoy told us. Mr. McCoy revealed that, behind the scenes, the company has been working hard to undermine President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The White House proposal included spending hundreds of billions on clean energy and transport as part of the most ambitious clean energy legislation ever proposed by a U.S. president, and it would have been paid for by higher taxes on corporations like Exxon. But these ambitious proposals are on the verge of being defeated. According to Mr. McCoy, Exxon has been working to scale back the legislation and stop Exxon paying more tax. He told us which United States senators the company sought to recruit to their lobbying campaign — and they’re not all Republicans.

KEITH McCOY: 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. You stick to highways and bridges, then a lot of the negative stuff starts to come out, because —

REPORTER: Right. For you guys.

KEITH McCOY: — there’s a germaneness, right? That doesn’t make any sense for a highway bill. Why would you put in — why would you put in something on emissions reductions on climate change to oil refineries in a highway bill?

REPORTER: Who’s the crucial guys for you?

KEITH McCOY: Well, Senator Capito, who’s the ranking member on environment and public works. Joe Manchin, I talk to his office every week, and he is the kingmaker on this, because he’s a Democrat from West Virginia, which is a very conservative state. And he’s not shy about sort of staking his claim early and completely changing the debate. So, on the Democrat side, we look for the moderates on these issues. So it’s the Manchins. It’s the Sinemas. It’s the Testers.

NARRATOR: Exxon is even trying to get through to President Biden through his friend, Senator Chris Coons.

KEITH McCOY: One of the other ones that aren’t talked about is Senator Coons, who’s from Delaware, who has a very close relationship with Senator Biden. So we’ve been working with his office. As a matter of fact, our CEO is talking to him next Tuesday.

Then you take it out a little bit more, and you say, “OK, well, who’s up for reelection in 2022?” That’s Hassan. That’s Kelly. And then, obviously, the Republicans. We have a great relationship with the senators where we have assets. I can’t worry about the 2027 class, because they’re not focused on reelection. The 2022 class is focused on reelection, so I know I have them. Those are the Marco Rubios. Those are the Senator Kennedys. Those are the Senator Daines. So, you can have those conversations with them because they’re a captive audience. They know they need you, and I need them.

NARRATOR: Dan Easley left Exxon earlier this year, after nearly eight years lobbying for the corporation. He described just how big a problem Biden’s original proposal posed for oil and gas companies.

DAN EASLEY: Oh, it’s going to be replete with provisions that will be difficult for oil and gas. Take away tax — you know, favorable tax treatment. You know, they’re going to raise the corporate rate, and then a whole host of environmental — new environmental requirements.


DAN EASLEY: And procurement requirements — the requirements for the federal government to purchase, you know, green energy and renewable technologies, and, you know, retrofitting federal buildings, and all of — I mean, it’s going to accelerate the transition to the extent that, I think, four years from now, it’s going to be difficult to unwind that. So, we’re all living in a different world.

NARRATOR: For years, Exxon has claimed it supports a carbon tax. When they came out for the policy, it surprised a lot of people. But does Exxon really believe in a carbon tax? Or is it a ploy to make the company look responsible while giving them cover to aggressively oppose climate regulations that would hit their bottom line?

KEITH McCOY: 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.”

REPORTER: What you said was just really interesting. So, it’s basically never going to happen, right, is the calculation?

KEITH McCOY: Yeah. No, it’s not. It’s not going to — a carbon tax isn’t going to happen.

REPORTER: So, this helps me understand a little bit why suddenly a lot of U.S. oil majors are talking about a carbon tax, because it sounds pretty, uh —

KEITH McCOY: Well, I — the cynical side of me, they’ve got nothing else. It’s an easy talking point to say, “Look, I’m for a carbon tax.” So that’s the talking point. That is a — in my mind, an effective advocacy tool.

NARRATOR: Until February, Dan Easley was Exxon’s main man lobbying the White House. He gave us an insight into the relationship between Exxon and the previous administration when he detailed the successive lobbying victories the company secured under Trump. This includes issuing thousands of new oil and gas drilling permits, which critics argue are incompatible with efforts to tackle climate change.

DAN EASLEY: The executive branch and regulatory team for Exxon had extraordinary success over the last four years, in large part because the administration was so predisposed to — you know, to helping.

REPORTER: What were the big wins you got out of Trump?

DAN EASLEY: You should google “ExxonMobil announcement and Donald Trump.” So, he live-Facebooked from the West Wing our big drill in the Gulf project. He mentioned us in two States of the Union. We were able to get investor-state dispute settlement protection in NAFTA. We were able to rationalize the permit environment and, you know, get tons of permits out.

I mean, you know, the wins are such that it would be difficult to categorize them all. I mean, tax has to be the biggest one, right? The reduction of the corporate rate was — you know, it was probably worth billions to Exxon. So, yeah, I mean, there were a lot of wins.

NARRATOR: Mr. McCoy then told us how Exxon aggressively fought to discredit climate science. He also told us how, even now, talking down solutions to global warming, like renewable energy and electric vehicles, is critically important to the work Exxon does in Washington, D.C.

KEITH McCOY: 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 — there’s nothing illegal about that. We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders. 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. And that’s at every phase. That’s in the Senate. That’s in the House. That’s with the administration. On something like climate change, there’s some forest fires. There’s an increase of, you know, 0.001 Celsius. That doesn’t affect people’s everyday lives.

NARRATOR: For decades, the decisions made in Exxon’s “God Pod” have had an impact on the lives of every American — maybe every human being on the planet. They held back action on climate change and used their power and money to ensure Washington politicians were working for them, not us. Now we have a better idea of what they did and how they did it. And crucially, now we know they’re still doing it. ExxonMobil released this statement.

EXXONMOBIL STATEMENT: The report “contained a number of important factual misstatements that are starkly at odds with our positions … including on climate policy and our firm commitment to carbon pricing. Our lobby efforts on the infrastructure bill are related to a tax burden that could disadvantage US business. … We have supported climate science for decades. Our lobbying efforts comply with all laws and are publicly disclosed.”

AMY GOODMAN: That video produced by Unearthed, an investigative journalism project of Greenpeace UK, which spoke to the two Exxon lobbyists, Keith McCoy and Dan Easley, after posing as corporate headhunters.

We go now to London, where we’re joined by Charlie Kronick, senior climate adviser at Greenpeace UK.

Quite something to get them so clearly putting all of this on the record, Charlie. Can you talk about what surprised you most and what you think is most significant about their revelations as they try to sell themselves over the effectiveness of how they’ve captured so many U.S. senators, key among them, Joe Manchin?

CHARLIE KRONICK: I think the most amazing and surprising thing about these revelations is that: Is anybody still surprised at what Exxon is doing? You know, I think that the reality is that almost nothing has changed in the Exxon playbook in terms of their appearance to want to be seen to be credible on climate change, while at the same time spending an amazing amount of time, resources to slow down progress on climate change, at a time when we just simply have zero time left for delay, obfuscation or debate on what should be done when. It’s absolutely clear what needs to happen now. And they seem to be, up until Darren Woods’ apology last week, committed to carrying on slowing things down and stopping action, doing everything they can to do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Charlie, how do these revelations from these interviews compare to previous exposés of Exxon and its lobbying efforts? There have been many over the years.

CHARLIE KRONICK: Well, I think — there has been. I mean, this has been going on for decades, Juan, and I think it’s really important to highlight that this is the ongoing activity of a company that’s been trying to slow down progress on climate change for decades. What’s different about it is, literally, it is from the horse’s mouth.

As both lobbyists said earlier in the interviews, they were quite comfortable using front groups. They were quite comfortable in hiding behind — whether they were sort of think tanks, you know, sort of what would describe themselves as right-wing or free market think tanks who would espouse these views, which were supported and funded by Exxon, or whether it was groupings like the American Petroleum Institute, which is a trade association, which always presents the lowest common denominator in terms of ambition for an industry. But the API, American Petroleum Institute, is seen as respectable, certainly has a huge presence in D.C. And that kind of lobbying has been known for decades.

I think what’s unusual about this situation is that they were just absolutely — they weren’t even — I mean, I was going to say unapologetic. They were gloating at the level of success that they were having on slowing down progress on the biggest challenge that we’re facing as a country, as a generation, as a world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Charlie Kronick, we want to thank you so much for being with us, senior climate adviser at Greenpeace UK.

Next up, we go to Colombia, where an international human rights commission has arrived to document the right-wing government’s deadly crackdown on protesters following the general strike in April. Stay with us.

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