The veteran oil-industry lobbyist was told he was meeting with a recruiter. But the video call, which was secretly recorded, was part of an elaborate sting operation by an individual working for the environmental group Greenpeace UK.
During the call, Keith McCoy, a senior director of federal relations for Exxon Mobil, described how the oil and gas giant targeted a number of influential United States senators in an effort to weaken climate action in President Biden’s flagship infrastructure plan. That plan now contains few of the ambitious ideas initially proposed by Mr. Biden to cut the burning of fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change.
Mr. McCoy also said on the recording that Exxon’s support for a tax on carbon dioxide was “a great talking point” for the oil company, but that he believes the tax will never happen. He also said that the company has in the past aggressively fought climate science through “shadow groups.”
In a statement, Darren Woods, Exxon’s chief executive, said the comments “in no way represent the company’s position on a variety of issues, including climate policy, and our firm commitment that carbon pricing is important to addressing climate change.” Mr. McCoy and another lobbyist interviewed by Greenpeace “were never involved in developing the company’s policy positions on the issues discussed,” he said.
“We condemn the statements and are deeply apologetic for them, including comments regarding interactions with elected officials. 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,” Mr. Woods said.
The lobbyist’s remarks came after Exxon, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers, has in recent years said it backs the Paris climate accord’s goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels.
In what has been hailed as a significant shift for the company, Exxon has also thrown public support behind the idea of a carbon tax, a fee on the carbon content of fossil fuels meant to discourage emissions by making goods that are more polluting to manufacture more expensive. Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels trap the sun’s heat and are a major contributor to climate change.
In advertising campaigns, Exxon has presented itself as a part of the solution to, rather than a cause of, climate change. Mr. McCoy painted a different picture of Exxon’s efforts behind the scenes. In the recording, he said the company targeted a number of influential senators with the aim of scaling back the climate provisions in President Biden’s sweeping infrastructure bill by scrapping the tax increases that would pay for it.
“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,” Mr. McCoy said in the video call. But if the plan stuck to “roads and bridges,” the budget would be reduced greatly and limit the need for tax increases, a move that would save Exxon close to a billion dollars, he said.
The Exxon lobbyist also expressed skepticism over the idea of taxing carbon pollution produced by burning fossil fuels — a measure pushed by some Republicans as “a conservative climate solution” based on free-market principles. Mr. Woods, Exxon’s chief executive, has also argued that instead of an “inefficient patchwork of regulations” in the United States, the federal government should instead simply tax carbon.
Mr. McCoy seemed to contradict that position. “Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans. And the cynical side of me says yeah, we kind of know that,” he said. “But it gives us a talking point.”
Alex Flint, executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions, which has led the push for a carbon tax, said his experience with Exxon’s lobbyists was that “they are genuinely committed to a carbon tax and realize that a lot of work needs to be done.”
On the video call recorded by Greenpeace, Mr. McCoy defended the company’s efforts to mislead the public on climate change, even as the company’s own scientists were recognizing greenhouse gas emissions as a risk to the planet. “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we hide our science? Absolutely not,” Mr. McCoy said. “Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true.”
Mr. McCoy didn’t identify the groups. Exxon Mobil has spent millions of dollars funding conservative groups that challenge established climate science. “But there’s nothing illegal about that,” he said. “We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders.”