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The real McCoy

The real McCoy

Could undercover footage of Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy be the juice that climate litigation needs?

This time last week Keith McCoy was an Exxon oil lobbyist unknown outside the US energy industry. Now he’s the villain sent by central casting for the sequel to The Insider, Michael Mann’s thriller about the takedown of Big Tobacco. 

Is Big Oil next? Put it this way: the chances have probably never been better. 

To recap: last Thursday Channel 4 broadcast footage obtained by undercover reporters working for Greenpeace and pretending to McCoy that they were headhunters. Boasting of his work for Exxon, he said that

  • he’d been targeting moderate senators in Congress to water down President Biden’s climate legislation;
  • the company supported the idea of a carbon tax, but only as a talking point to enhance its environmental credentials, confident it would never pass; and
  • the company fought aggressively against early climate science and joined “shadow groups” to undermine it. 

Since then Darren Woods, Exxon’s CEO, has apologised, condemned the remarks by McCoy and another lobbyist and insisted they don’t represent Exxon’s position. McCoy has said he’s “deeply embarrassed”, and spokespeople for some of the senators he claimed to have targeted have said they’re quite capable of making up their own minds and anyway he exaggerated his influence. Keith who?

And yet…

  • Precisely the fate McCoy sought for Biden’s climate legislation has come to pass for it. The senators whose offices he targeted have gutted it. As the price of a smidgeon of Republican support, what was supposed to be a landmark green infrastructure bill has been shorn of a “clean electricity standard” that would have required US energy companies to ratchet up the renewables in their mix until it was CO2-free. Tax breaks for wind and solar power worth hundreds of billions of dollars have gone. If McCoy et al didn’t dilute the bill, someone with a similar agenda did. 
  • Congressional Democrats are impressed by McCoy’s credentials even if Woods and others are suddenly disowning him. Emboldened by his candour, the chairs of two House committees have said they will subpoena Woods and other CEOs of oil majors operating in the US to question them about climate disinformation campaigns they may have backed.
  • It’s already known that Exxon commissioned high-quality research predicting 40 years ago that fossil fuel use would cause global warming, and sat on it.

The UN is weighing in. For the first time its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has drafted a report directly accusing “contrarian” think tanks and trade bodies of deliberately blurring the scientific consensus and polarising public support for it, “particularly in the US”.

The question now is whether the McCoy tape will boost the chances of about two dozen closely-watched lawsuits accusing Exxon and others of covering up what they knew about climate change. Most are filed by state and city governments. They seek compensation for damage from rising sea levels, extreme weather events and other climate-related phenomena that – it’s argued – might have been avoided. 

If the answer is yes, the legal floodgates could open. The case settled by America’s four biggest tobacco companies in 1998 shows multibillion-dollar settlements are possible. Seismic shifts in public attitudes can follow.

There is one catch: 65 per cent of the world’s oil reserves are controlled by national oil companies far beyond the reach of western laws and lawyers. 

Source: The Grantham Institute

Science and Tech

Urchins and kelp
Acre for acre, underwater kelp is up to 20 times better at absorbing carbon than trees are on dry land. Kelp forests used to bloom along most of the planet’s coastlines, but round much of the Pacific Rim – including off Chile, Northern California, and Tasmania – they have shrunk catastrophically in recent years: by 95 per cent in some places since 2014. Warming waters are part of the problem, but so are purple sea urchins. They destroy kelp. So scientists from the Nature Conservancy in the US are promoting these traditionally undesirable sea urchins as a culinary delicacy for humans. They may have more luck boosting populations of the starfish that actually like them. But these too are vulnerable to warming waters, and to a virus that nearly wiped them out in 2013. If marine conservation was easy, everyone would be doing it.


Siberian forests
Managed or not? That is a question being asked of Russia’s 800 million hectares of forest, because if it classifies as managed then Moscow can factor it into its “nationally defined contribution” to cutting global CO2 emissions. If not, then strictly speaking it can’t be. The logic is that only forest planted by humans represents extra absorptive capacity. Wild forest doesn’t count as extra for carbon accounting purposes. The trouble is that Russia defines as “managed” any patch of forest where it decides it needn’t combat fires. In other words, its managed forest isn’t managed at all, and usually isn’t extra either, but it does cover an area nearly as big as Brazil. Expect some fiery arguments about this at COP26, to which Putin has now been personally invited.

Engagement and activism

Plastic purge
David Attenborough’s film about plastics in the ocean inspired a whole new generation of environmentalists. The EU has responded. As of last Saturday the sale of 10 forms of single-use plastic including cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers and polystyrene cups was banned. Plastic water bottles will still be allowed (lobbying by Evian?) but plastic-based cigarette filters won’t. The measure is the Single Use Plastics Directive and given that Brexit was supposed to free the UK to strengthen its environmental regulations it is worth asking why nothing like this has emerged from Whitehall yet. It’s not one size fits all. In France the directive forms part of a circular economy law that also bans most plastic packaging for fruit and veg. And plastic toys are off kids’ menus. 


One H2 watch
Jim Ratcliffe has piled into Britain’s first clean hydrogen fund. Ratcliffe is chairman of Ineos, the chemicals group, and not known as a tree-hugger. So it’s fair to assume he sees financial potential in green and blue hydrogen (created from the electrolysis of water and the reformation of natural gas respectively). He’s invested £25 million in HydrogenOne Capital Growth, for a 10 per cent stake assuming the fund raises all the money it seeks. The idea that clean hydrogen is about to take off does make sense. It’s a straightforward large-scale energy store to level out the fluctuating power supply from wind and solar, and Boris Johnson is a disciple, which suggests there’ll be government support for it at least until 2024. It does take an enormous amount of energy to break the bonds between the H and the two Os in a water molecule, but unlike Thatcher, Johnson wasn’t a chemist.

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell

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