Dems plan to question Exxon lobbyist about carbon tax video

By Corbin Hiar, Nick Sobczyk | 07/16/2021 05:43 AM EST

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) chairs the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment. Francis Chung/E&E News

This story was updated at 11:09 a.m. EDT.

Congressional investigators are planning to question an Exxon Mobil Corp. lobbyist who inadvertently confirmed a decadeslong effort by the company to derail federal action on climate change in a secretly recorded video, according to officials involved in the effort.

The interview by the House Oversight and Reform Committee will likely precede what stands to be a blockbuster hearing with Exxon CEO Darren Woods and other executives of major oil and gas producers.

A televised spectacle with oil industry officials gained importance following the release last month of a surreptitiously recorded video in which Keith McCoy, the Exxon lobbyist, acknowledged that the company had funded “shadow groups” to sow doubt about climate science. He also undermined Exxon’s public expressions of support for a carbon tax by saying it’s a “talking point.”

McCoy was secretly recorded by activists from Greenpeace UK, who claimed to be headhunters for a deep-pocketed public relations firm with Middle Eastern oil clients.

“We’re gonna call in McCoy and ask in detail what his role is and what the role of its lobbyists are, and then have Exxon’s CEO and Chevron’s CEO under oath to tell us what their lobbyists are supposed to do and what actions to take when a lobbyist runs afoul of their values,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chairman of Oversight’s Environment Subcommittee, told E&E News yesterday.

A spokeswoman for committee Republicans said this morning that they had not heard from the Democratic majority about the investigation.

The inquiry by Democratic lawmakers comes amid growing unrest among Exxon shareholders, who in June ousted a quarter of the company’s board members over concerns about lackluster returns and future volatility stemming from climate change.

Exxon officials have sought to distance themselves from McCoy, who has lobbied for the company since 2014. Woods described McCoy’s remarks as “deeply disappointing” and reiterated the company’s commitment to carbon pricing and greenhouse gas reductions.

McCoy has also disavowed what he told the activists on video, saying that “my statements clearly do not represent Exxon Mobil’s positions on important public policy issues” (Climatewire, July 6).

But Khanna and his team want to hear more from the lobbyist and his employer.

“McCoy’s allegations are deeply concerning, which is why we’ve called and initiated an investigation in the Oversight Committee,” Khanna said. “We’re gonna ask Exxon’s board for documents and evidence and see what is there.”

Exxon’s 12-person board includes three new independent directors promoted by the startup investment fund Engine No. 1, who may be inclined to cooperate with congressional investigators. Engine No. 1 waged a bruising $12.5 million campaign to overhaul the company’s leadership in part by convincing large institutional investors that Exxon lacked a clean energy strategy, according to Reuters.

Exxon declined to comment, and McCoy didn’t respond to an email sent to his work account.

Khanna’s investigation of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies has been in the works for months.

The California Democrat told E&E News earlier this year that he plans to invite top oil executives to testify voluntarily but that he would issue subpoenas if they refuse to appear (E&E Daily, May 19).

Subpoenas would need approval from committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and those discussions are only just beginning. But Maloney supports the broad aims of the fossil fuel industry inquiry.

“I am very concerned by the video evidence revealing how Exxon knowingly tried to block action to address climate change,” she said in a statement after this story was published. “As Chairwoman of the Oversight Committee I intend to hold Exxon and other companies accountable for their actions and will do everything in my power to address this global crisis.”

Khanna said he plans to hold a hearing, co-chaired by Maloney, with the full Oversight and Reform Committee by the end of September.

“You can’t solve the climate crisis if you don’t solve the climate misinformation crisis,” Khanna added. “So this is foundational for us.”