Image: Emily Buchanan

Inside Exxon’s playbook: How America’s biggest oil company continues to oppose action on climate change

ExxonMobil aims to drastically weaken Biden’s climate plans and used shadow groups to ‘aggressively’ fight climate science, insider tells undercover reporter

Image: Emily Buchanan

Inside Exxon’s playbook: How America’s biggest oil company continues to oppose action on climate change

ExxonMobil aims to drastically weaken Biden’s climate plans and used shadow groups to ‘aggressively’ fight climate science, insider tells undercover reporter

Image: Emily Buchanan

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.

Did we aggressively fight against some of the science?




– Keith McCoy, Exxon lobbyist

He described Biden’s new plan to slash US greenhouse gas emissions as “insane” and admitted that the company had aggressively fought early climate science through “shadow groups” to protect its investments.

Keith McCoy – a senior director in Exxon’s Washington DC government affairs team – told the undercover reporter that he is speaking to the office of influential Democratic senator Joe Manchin every week, with the aim of drastically reducing the scope of Biden’s climate plan so that “negative stuff”, such as rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions and taxes on oil companies, are removed.

Last week – after weeks of bipartisan talks – President Biden conditionally endorsed a scaled-back version of his infrastructure plan, which eliminates hundreds of billions of dollars of proposed support for climate initiatives.

During the undercover meeting, which took place via Zoom in May, McCoy suggested that Exxon’s public support for a carbon tax as its principal climate policy is an “advocacy tool” and “great talking point” that will never actually happen.

“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,” McCoy said.

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.

It is important to note that neither McCoy nor Easley were necessarily seeking a new job, but each was willing to talk and provide information to the purported recruiters.

Over the coming days, Unearthed, will also reveal:

  • Claims that Exxon covertly fought to prevent a ban on toxic chemicals
  • How Exxon is using its playbook on climate change to head-off regulations on plastic

California Congressman, Rep. Ro Khanna, told Unearthed: “For decades, fossil fuel companies have lied to the public, to regulators, and to Congress about the true danger posed by their products. Today’s tape only proves our knowledge that the industry’s disinformation campaign is alive and well. In the coming months, I plan to ask the CEOs of Exxon, Chevron, and other fossil fuel companies to come testify before my Environment subcommittee. We can no longer allow Exxon, or any other companies, to prevent our collective action on the climate crisis.”

A spokesman for ExxonMobil said that the allegations put to them: “contained a number of important factual misstatements that are starkly at odds with our positions on a variety of issues, including climate policy and our firm commitment to carbon pricing.”

Denial and delay

Exxon claims to support global effort to tackle climate change, but it hasn’t always. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the company orchestrated a multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign that manufactured doubt regarding the link between global warming and the burning of fossil fuels.

Did we join some of these ‘shadow groups’ to work against some of the early efforts on climate?




Keith McCoy, Exxon lobbyist

It did so through a concerted strategic communications and lobbying push, which provided fringe scientists who denied climate science with funding and a platform, via Exxon-placed op-eds, advertisements, and political briefings.

Exxon also helped to found and lead a powerful cross-industry group, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which spent tens of millions of dollars campaigning against a binding global climate agreement ahead of the 1997 UN climate summit in Kyoto.

The organisation spent $13 million dollars on one advertising campaign alone, aiming to weaken US support for an agreement in Kyoto.

The efforts were successful: the US Congress refused to ratify Kyoto and Exxon later lobbied the Bush administration to pull out of the protocol altogether. This left global efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions in tatters.

Fighting science

Exxon continues to deny having misled the public on climate change, and no serving Exxon executive has ever admitted that the company fought climate science to protect the company’s financial interests – until now.

McCoy told an undercover Unearthed reporter that although he didn’t believe Exxon had buried its own science, the company had cast doubt on the scientific consensus: “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.”

The reference to “shadow groups” is likely to relate to a powerful network of think tanks and pressure groups through which Exxon fought both the science and political action on climate change. Between 1998 and 2014, the company spent at least $30 million funding climate denial groups, such as the Heartland Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Heritage Foundation.

This network played a critical role in shifting the Republican Party from a position of support for action to cut emissions in the 1980s to its near-total opposition to tackling climate change from the mid-1990s to today.

Geoffrey Supran, a researcher at Harvard University who has written a number of scientific papers on Exxon’s efforts to mislead the public on climate change, told Unearthed: “I don’t believe the company has ever publicly acknowledged its role in climate denial… to have active employees of the company acknowledge its past behaviour is significant and certainly relevant to ongoing litigation and investigations against the company.”

Supran continued: “The company has thrown up the straw man argument that they never hid or ‘covered up’ the science, but that’s never actually been our point. The point is that they misled the public about climate change by contributing quietly to climate science but loudly to promoting doubt about it, so what this person said seems exactly consistent with that.”

A new playbook

By the start of the Obama administration in January 2009, it had become untenable for ExxonMobil to continue to publicly cast doubt on climate science.

Instead, ahead of Obama’s inauguration, and in an apparent break with Exxon’s long opposition to what it called “near-term policies” on climate change, the company’s then-CEO Rex Tillerson publicly backed a carbon tax.

The proposal sought to spread the cost of tackling climate change beyond the fossil fuel sector, taxing businesses in every sector of the economy for each tonne of carbon emitted – either by them directly or embedded in products they sell to consumers. The cost of this would then be passed on to the public.

In making the announcement, Tillerson sketched the outlines of a new ExxonMobil playbook on climate change – one that accepts the science but nevertheless seeks to delay rapid emissions cuts.

Instead of subsidising renewables, governments should prioritise research and development to discover a “breakthrough” technology. In the meantime, Exxon would remain “fundamentally an oil and gas company because we think that’s what society needs and will have to have for the next 50 years”, Tillerson said.

Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans…


A carbon tax is not going to happen.


– Keith McCoy, Exxon lobbyist

Crucially, Tillerson explicitly framed the company’s support for a carbon tax in opposition to the incoming Obama administration’s plan to introduce a more stringent cap and trade system. Essentially, Exxon backed a carbon tax as part of its strategy to oppose cap and trade.

In 2013 – after the cap and trade bill had been defeated – Tillerson backtracked: “As to our advocacy around a carbon tax—I would not support putting a carbon tax in place today because I think we still have a lot of gains to be made through technology and other less intrusive policies.”

Geoffrey Supran explained how this new playbook is a “classic shift from denialism to delayism”.

“Sure, over the last decades the company has necessarily shifted its rhetoric, but the end goal remains the same and that’s inaction on climate change. This is just a continuation of their 30-year track record of acting in bad faith on climate change,” Supran continued.

Taxing carbon

Exxon rejects claims that its support for a carbon tax is not genuine, but Unearthed can reveal that one of its most senior lobbyists believes the company knows the policy has no chance of being enacted but nevertheless uses it as an “advocacy tool.”

“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,” McCoy said.

When asked by the reporter, “So it’s basically never going to happen right, is the calculation?”, McCoy replied: “Yeah. No it’s not, it’s not. Carbon tax is not going to happen”.

He added that other members of the oil industry that have recently announced their support for a carbon tax – such as the American Petroleum Institute (API), an influential lobby group – did so because “they’ve got nothing else, so it’s an easy talking point to say, look I’m for a carbon tax”.

McCoy continued: “So that’s the talking point, that is in my mind an effective advocacy tool. Many members of Congress can say, well we don’t believe you, and we’ll say well yeah, we’ve been saying this for over a decade and we’re not new to this. API is new to this, some of these other companies are new to this, but at ExxonMobil we’ve been saying this for a decade.

“I think the carbon tax is an effective way of saying to them [members of Congress]: put up or shut up.”

McCoy was asked whether Exxon’s support for the “talking point” of a carbon tax makes it easier for the company to oppose more punitive climate regulations, “whilst still having this kind of bold proposal that makes sure you are still for something, not just against it?”

He nodded and replied: “Well that’s the danger right, so they realised that they can’t get the sort of large bill put forth so what ends up happening is it’s death by 1,000 cuts right.”

McCoy continued: “They just go through the regulatory process and they put a moratorium on federal leasing, they’ll do something on pipelines you know, they’ll look at offshore drilling, they’re looking at the royalty rates now for onshore drilling so there’s going to be each step of the way they’re going to try to cripple the oil and gas sector.”

An Exxon spokesman said: “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. While there is not broad support for a tax, we are actively and publicly discussing other options, including lower-carbon fuels and other sector-based approaches that would place a uniform, predictable cost on carbon.”

A spokeswoman for the API said: “We’ve endorsed a host of climate actions and are advocating for a carbon price policy as the most impactful way to spur innovation and reduce emissions across all economic sectors. We’ll continue to advance technology innovation, policy solutions and industry actions to help shape a lower-carbon future.”

Infrastructure plan

One of the threats facing Exxon, according to McCoy, is President Biden’s proposal to pour billions of dollars into renewable energy and electric vehicles through the $2 trillion American jobs plan, his flagship initiative to tackle climate change.

Unearthed can reveal that Exxon has been working hard behind the scenes to eliminate the proposed funding.

As alluded to by McCoy, in the absence of major legislation limiting US emissions – such as the cap-and-trade system proposed during the Obama administration – Biden has moved to accelerate the transition to clean energy and transport through government spending.

The proposals, the most ambitious clean energy legislation ever put forward by a US President, included more than $100 billion in subsidies for electric vehicles alone and would have been paid for by higher taxes on corporations like Exxon.

But last week Biden endorsed an alternative plan, which eliminates the vast majority of spending on climate change after being forced into a compromise by “moderate” Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin, senator for West Virginia.

Now, Unearthed can reveal that – according to one of its most senior lobbyists – ExxonMobil targeted a number of these moderate senators, with the aim of scaling back the plan’s ambition by scrapping the tax hikes that would pay for it.

Speaking in early May, McCoy said: “We’re playing defence, because President Biden is talking about this big infrastructure package and he’s going to pay for it by increasing corporate taxes. So it’s a delicate balance we’re asking for help with taxes over here [lobbying for subsidies for a carbon capture project] and we’re saying, don’t increase our taxes over here.”

He explained that if the plan stuck to “roads and bridges”, the budget could be reduced from $2 trillion to $800 billion, limiting the need for tax rises: “The international tax piece is for, for ExxonMobil is close to a billion dollars.”

This would mean “the negative stuff starts to come out, because there’s a germaneness right… that doesn’t make any sense for a highway bill. Why would you put in something on emissions reductions, on climate change to oil refineries in a highway bill?”

Targeting senators

When asked which senators Exxon is lobbying on these specific points, McCoy said: “Senator [Shelley Moore] Capito [Republican senator for West Virginia]… who’s the ranking member of environment and public works. Joe Manchin, I talk to his office every week, he is the kingmaker on this because he’s a Democrat from West Virginia which is [a] very conservative state, so he is, and he’s not shy about sort of staking his claim early and completely changing the debate.”

“On the Democrat side we look for the moderates on these issues”, McCoy continued, highlighting figures including Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema; John Tester, senator for Montana; and Chris Coons, senator for Delaware, President Biden’s home state.

“Senator Coons… has a very close relationship with Senator [President] Biden, so we’ve been working with his office – as a matter of fact our CEO is talking to him next Tuesday and having those conversations and just teeing it up, and then that way I can start working with his staff to let them know where we are on some of these issues,” McCoy said.

He added that he targets senators like Mark Kelly, Democrat senator from Arizona, New Hampshire Democrat senator Maggie Hassan, and Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio, who are up for reelection in 2022. “I can’t worry about the 2027 class because they’re not focused on re-election. The 2022 [class] is focused on re-election so I know I have them… you can have those conversations with them because they’re a captive audience, they know they need you and I need them,” McCoy said.

With the vast majority of the clean energy and transport spending now stripped from the proposed bipartisan legislation, Biden has signalled that he will attempt to address climate change through a separate budget reconciliation bill, which can be passed with a simple majority vote.

But the President faces the same challenge of convincing Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema – and the other senators targeted by Exxon – to support the tax increases necessary to fund the transformation in energy and transport that he originally envisaged.

An Exxon spokesman said: Our discussions on the current infrastructure bill are not accurately portrayed. 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.

“The comments describing interactions with government officials and non-governmental organizations are entirely inconsistent with the way we expect our people to engage. The individuals interviewed were not involved in developing the company’s policy positions on the issues,” he continued.

Clean energy

Unearthed can further reveal that Exxon’s new strategy for delaying action on climate change goes beyond opposition to specific pieces of legislation.

On something like climate change, there’s the forest fires, there’s an increase of, you know, .001 Celsius… that doesn’t affect people’s everyday lives.


– Keith McCoy, Exxon lobbyist

A core objective for Exxon on Capitol Hill is undermining confidence that a transition to clean energy and transport is possible over the next decade, according to McCoy.

“You’re not going to be able to just switch to battery operated vehicles or land for your electricity and it’s 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,” he said.

McCoy went on to describe President Biden’s new targets to cut US greenhouse gas emissions as “insane”, before suggesting that ambitious action on climate change is unlikely to succeed, because it isn’t an existential threat like the pandemic.

“Outside like, of something like Covid where there’s this existential crisis and people rally to support each other. On something like climate change there’s the forest fires, there’s an increase [of] .001 Celsius, that doesn’t affect people’s everyday lives,” he said.

‘A lot of wins’

The investigation also revealed one former Exxon lobbyist’s disbelief at the scale of influence the company had during the Trump administration.

Dan Easley, who was a senior director for federal relations at Exxon until February 2021, when he joined a clean technologies firm, laughed when asked by an undercover reporter if the company had achieved many big policy wins under Trump, before outlining victories on fossil fuel permitting and the renegotiation of the NAFTA trade agreement.

“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 rationalise the permit environment and you know, get tonnes of permits out.”

“The wins are such that it would be difficult to, to categorise them all. I mean, tax has to be the biggest one right, the reduction of the corporate rate was, you know, it’s probably worth billions to Exxon, so yeah there were a lot of wins,” Easley continued.


ExxonMobil’s full statement is available here. Dan Easley did not respond to requests for comment.