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The Biden White House Has an Exxon Problem

The White House has remained conspicuously silent on a blockbuster report from Unearthed that suggested the oil company helped excise climate policy from the infrastructure package.

Joe Biden shakes hands with Ron Klain, standing in front of Jennifer Granholm.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
President Joe Biden shakes hands with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, alongside Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.

In a blockbuster report from Greenpeace journalistic arm Unearthed this week, top Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy all but claimed credit for helping excise climate policies from the Biden administration’s much-hyped infrastructure package. Exxon, McCoy explained to an undercover reporter with the outlet in May, has targeted 11 senators—including several authors of the bipartisan package—in a “fishing” operation. McCoy “reel[ed] in” lawmakers by talking about carbon taxes, electric vehicles, chemicals, taxes, and infrastructure. He said their strategy has been to get Congress to stick to “roads and bridges” and reduce the size of a package down from $2 trillion to $800 billion. As of this week, the negotiated proposal includes just $579 billion of new spending. 

These revelations cast serious doubt on a package that has become the Biden administration’s signature legislative push of 2021. Climate activists were already frustrated by the paltry proposed climate spending, even before Unearthed showed an Exxon lobbyist claiming credit for this result. Progressive political action committee Justice Democrats and the climate advocacy group Sunrise Movement are now calling the infrastructure package the #ExxonPlan.

“If you’re an oil corporation trying to make billions of dollars profiting off the climate crisis, you can get a standing weekly meeting with a U.S. senator; if you’re a waitress or a teacher, that’s unimaginable,” Representative Jamaal Bowman said over email, regarding the Unearthed report. “It’s no wonder that despite broad majorities of Americans supporting a bold infrastructure package to create the clean energy jobs of the future, members of Congress are trying to push the Exxon infrastructure plan instead.” 

Exxon, meanwhile, has disavowed the lobbyist’s account. “A current and former member of our government affairs team were secretly recorded making disturbing and inaccurate comments about our positions on a variety of issues, including climate change policy, and our interaction with elected officials,” stated Exxon CEO Darren Woods in a news release.

The White House has been conspicuously quiet on the report. Much of the uproar around the story has been directed toward the senators McCoy named while talking with the undercover journalist. Yet, looking back at the past month, it’s clear that several administration officials have also been eager to give oil and gas companies a seat at the policymaking table Exxon’s lobbyist has now admitted to trying to dismantle. 

National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy has had at least two meetings this year with oil and gas industry representatives, including a June meeting about the infrastructure package with the American Petroleum Institute—a formidable trade lobby that McCoy described to Unearthed as “whipping boys” Exxon uses to help avoid scrutiny. 

In the full transcript of the call with McCoy, provided to TNR by Unearthed, the lobbyist says that part of his job was to introduce Exxon CEO Darren Woods to a “new cast of characters.” That’s involved reaching out to McCarthy, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, and White House Office of Public Engagement head Cedric Richmond. “Prior to coming to Washington DC I did environmental and energy work in Massachusetts which is where Gina McCarthy is from so she and I worked together, I’ve known Gina for over 20 years,” McCoy said in the transcript. 

Other Biden appointees have ties to Exxon, as well. The administration has nominated Neil MacBride—who sued the Treasury Department on behalf of ExxonMobil—to serve as its general counsel. As the Revolving Door Project has pointed out, Biden’s pick to become the assistant secretary for terrorist financing, Elizabeth Rosenberg, was a consultant for Exxon and has previously argued in support of key fossil fuel industry priorities. While working at the Exxon-sponsored Center for a New American Security, she went to bat for repealing the crude oil export ban and accelerating U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas. 

Unearthed’s investigation is an acute example of a widespread problem. Exxon’s Worldwide Giving Report—coincidentally released the day the Unearthed investigation went live—shows generous donations to a number of centrist think tanks and academic institutions that have been feeders into top White House posts, including the Brookings Institution, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which received $675,000 from the company in 2020. CSIS alumni include Secretary of State Antony Blinken and acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. “We work with Brookings, we work with CSIS … we don’t work with some of the more hard right ones like Heritage,” McCoy told the undercover Unearthed journalist, referring to the Heritage Foundation.

Asked about his relationship with energy companies in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep last December, then-incoming climate envoy John Kerry, who has also met with Woods, said he was “reaching out to them because I want to hear from them right now.” Shortly before assuming his current post, Kerry divested millions of dollars worth of shares in oil and gas companies to comply without White House ethics rules. A 2020 financial disclosure from Kerry shows he had between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of shares each in Cabot Oil & Gas Company, Cheniere Energy, ConocoPhillips, and Parsley Energy, alongside shares in a number of electric and gas utilities. 

When Unearthed’s call with McCoy took place in early May, he said Secretary Granholm had met “a couple days ago” with Woods to talk about “climate change, carbon capture sequestration,” per the transcript. In a speech in North Dakota later that month, Granholm said, “We want to be a partner” to the oil and gas industry. “And first, let me be clear,” she continued: “In our position as a global supplier of crude oil and natural gas and other forms of energy, that traditional fossil energy is going to remain important, even as we work to reduce carbon emissions.” The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment on this piece.

There are a number of ways Exxon’s priorities could, in theory, shape White House policy. Exxon, like many oil and gas companies, has advanced the idea that fossil energy should continue alongside investments in clean energy and carbon capture, because rapid energy transition is impossible. (Climate scientists, on the other hand, have argued new fossil fuel infrastructure threatens to lock in dangerous levels of warming.) Arguing that the White House should back its efforts to develop carbon capture and storage technology, Darren Woods told Politico in May, “There aren’t any bigger opportunities to make this kind of reduction in the time frame we’re talking about.”

According to what McCoy said, however, making climate policy seem impossibly difficult is a deliberate public relations strategy: “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,” McCoy told Unearthed’s undercover reporter.

Instead, the company, according to McCoy, has thrown its support behind a carbon tax it believes cannot pass, as well as carbon capture, which in Exxon’s ideal world could allow for business to continue on as usual. McCoy said the company publicly supports a carbon tax in large part because, while being unlikely to pass, it “gives us a talking point. We can say, well, what is ExxonMobil for? Well, we’re for a carbon tax.” When it comes to carbon capture and sequestration—which he mentioned frequently on the call with Unearthedgovernment support can open up a whole new revenue stream. Accordingly, McCoy says his engagement with infrastructure talks are “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,” referring to proposals for raising corporate taxes. 

Going purely by recent public statements from White House officials, this strategy seems to be working well. Granholm has eagerly talked up carbon capture and storage—what McCoy called “a new pathway for the corporation”—as a centerpiece of White House climate policy. She added in North Dakota that “at the Department of Energy, we’re eager to help you abate emissions in the crude oil and natural gas supply chain.” The Department of Energy, she said, was already “putting our brain power … and our financial resources to work in advancing carbon capture utilization and storage on carbon dioxide removal approaches like direct air capture.” 

Carbon removal itself is arguably essential. But the considerable role Exxon appears to be playing in shaping the policy conversations around it is troubling. With company officials on record as saying they support a carbon tax because they don’t think it will work, the fact that senior administration officials are repeating their talking points on carbon capture should raise questions about who is charting the path toward desperately needed climate innovations, and whether these innovations are being pushed as a deliberate distraction from other emissions-reduction strategies. 

Right now, many climate advocates disappointed by the turn in infrastructure package negotiations are pinning their hopes on a clean energy standard, which the administration has named as a priority in infrastructure negotiations. Such a standard could, if properly structured, make a major dent in emissions and be invaluable to decarbonizing the power sector.

There are, however, many different versions of a clean energy standard on offer; progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement, for example, want to see a standard passed through reconciliation that doesn’t incentivize additional fossil fuel development.  The question is whether the version the White House is fighting for will look more like that or instead contain the incentives that Exxon seems to want. 

When asked by Unearthed’s reporter, McCoy said that “if there is a clean energy standard, we would probably advocate for natural gas, and I think that is taking hold. We think natural gas would play a key role in anything and not just as a bridge fuel, we think it’s a low emission energy source and should be part of a clean electricity standard.” 

This week, a memo leaked from McCarthy’s office on White House climate priorities for an infrastructure package. Among the policies named for a reconciliation package is, in fact, the Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Standard. That could be Sunrise’s preferred clean electricity standard or Exxon’s. The language included in the memo doesn’t provide much clarity either way, and the White House still has not made any comment on recent revelations of Exxon’s role in the infrastructure package. A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on this story.