'Eye of fire,' Exxon lobbyist's comments fuel renewed attacks on oil industry

Environmentalists are ramping up their criticism of the oil and gas industry following revelations last week from an Exxon Mobil lobbyist on climate change and a viral "eye of fire" video from the Gulf of Mexico caused by a pipeline leak.

Progressives on Capitol Hill seized on the two events by pushing for robust climate provisions in forthcoming infrastructure legislation and renewing threats to haul company executives before Congress to testify.

Longtime congressional critics of the industry argued that the past week underscores the need to transition away from fossil fuels to mitigate climate change.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Any reasonable person would look at the events of the past week—the ocean on fire and the fossil fuel industry actively complicit in the continuing climate crisis—and realize we need to pass the biggest, boldest climate infrastructure package possible,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Six Democrats blast Energy Department's uranium reserve pitch Facebook draws lawmaker scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens MORE (D-Mass.), sponsor of the Green New Deal in the Senate, told The Hill in a statement.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that the events give “more power” to climate legislation and efforts to restrict drilling on public land and waters.

“It gives more power to those pieces of legislation because it’s a way to rein this in and it’s a way to indicate from this administration or from this Congress that that’s not going to be tolerated,” he said in an interview.

The firestorm started last week when an undercover activist group released a recording of Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy discussing how the company has fought “against some of the science,” adding that Exxon’s support for a carbon tax was just a talking point. He also said he has sought to influence the infrastructure debate in Washington.

A few days later, a viral video showed a ring of fire in the Gulf of Mexico caused by a gas leak from an underwater pipeline belonging to Mexican state-owned oil company Pemex.

The two events come as Congress prepares to move forward on a bipartisan infrastructure proposal as some Democratic senators dig in on their demands for significant climate provisions.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the Senate, this has led to something of a two-track system, where a bipartisan measure will be complemented by a likely Democrat-only package that will sidestep a GOP filibuster through the budget reconciliation process and carry a higher price tag.

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Dems demand accounting from Big Oil Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Democrats call for oil company executives to testify on disinformation campaign MORE (D-Calif.), a former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that while he wouldn’t draw any red lines, he’d like to see an infrastructure bill that gets rid of fossil fuel subsidies but includes investment in electric vehicles, clean energy tax credits and a requirement that power providers obtain a certain amount of their energy from renewable sources.

He said in an interview that the news of the past week “reinforces the view that there has to be climate legislation for an infrastructure deal.”

Khanna, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, has for weeks discussed the possibility of subpoenaing major energy companies after executives declined to appear at recent hearings.

“Last week’s events crystallize the opinion of Democratic leaders that fossil fuel executives need to come into Congress to testify,” he told The Hill, saying he might try to seek testimony from leaders at Chevron, Peabody Energy and Shell.

“They will come in to testify to the Oversight Committee,” he said of industry in general. “I will do everything in my power ... to make sure that happens.”

Asked whether subpoenas were possible, he said, “that decision is the committee’s but let me just say everything has been discussed, everything is on the table and we will make sure they show up.”

Grijalva, too, said he would speak with Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who leads the Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, about possibly compelling the companies to testify.

Lindsay Reilly, a spokesperson for Porter, said the lawmaker “is determined to get answers from the oil and gas industry on behalf of the American people, and she is open to all options, including subpoenas, to get those answers.”

Frank Maisano, senior principal at Bracewell LLP’s policy resolution group, which represents various energy companies, dismissed the idea that the Exxon and Gulf of Mexico incidents will make much of a difference on Capitol Hill, adding that they were being used by activists to “try to jam their agenda at you.”

“The fact that all of these things are happening at once gives them the ability to have a talking point,” Maisano said.

He also characterized the subpoena threats as “political grandstanding.”

ADVERTISEMENT

After the tapes of the lobbyist's remarks were published, Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods attempted to distance the company.

“Comments made by the individuals 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. The individuals interviewed were never involved in developing the company’s policy positions on the issues discussed,” Woods said in a statement last week.

Pemex, meanwhile, blamed the Gulf of Mexico fire on a gas leak, but said there was no oil spill and that the fire was extinguished after about five hours.