What the Exxon Tapes Reveal About the American Petroleum Institute’s Lobbying Tactics on Oil Trains

The top oil trade group, which a senior Exxon lobbyist recently described as one of the company’s “whipping boys,” used similar delay tactics to push back against oil-by-rail safety rules.
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Freight train burning in Lac-Megantic, Quebec
Freight train burning in Lac-Megantic, Quebec Credit: Transportation Safety Board, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Senior ExxonMobil lobbyists were recently exposed by undercover reporting from UnEarthed, an investigative journalism project of Greenpeace, which captured footage of the employees explaining how the oil giant influences policy makers using trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute (API).

The undercover footage revealed Exxon lobbyists boasting about wins for the company under the Trump administration and admitting to continued efforts to sow doubt about climate change and undermine action to tackle the crisis. 

The recordings also confirmed the findings of years of DeSmog research on API’s lobbying tactics. “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we hide our science? Absolutely not,” Keith McCoy, a senior director in ExxonMobil’s Washington, D.C. government affairs team, told the undercover reporter Lawrence Carter. “Did we join some of these ‘shadow groups’ to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing illegal about that. You know, we were looking out for our investments; we were looking out for our shareholders.”

These revelations exposed by UnEarthed and first published by Channel 4 News help shed light on API’s lobbying strategies, particularly when it comes to transporting oil by rail. The rise of fracking in 2009 created a transportation problem in U.S. regions like North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, which lacked sufficient pipelines and other infrastructure to move the sudden glut of oil. In response, the oil industry started ramping up transport of its products by train around 2012, but several high-profile fires and explosions of these oil trains also followed, starting in July 2013.

DeSmog’s coverage of the years-long process of creating new oil train regulations in the wake of 2013’s deadly Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, oil train disaster documented the tactics described by Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy — and revealed just how effective the company is at watering down efforts by regulatory agencies to protect the public and environment. 

After years of covering the regulatory process governing oil trains, one fact stood out: API was almost always leading the process. Even though the process was supposed to be about improving rail safety, the oil industry played the dominant role. Exxon representatives were rarely seen in the many public Congressional or regulatory agency hearings and did not take a public role in fighting the regulations. However, as DeSmog reported, Exxon was meeting in private with federal regulators and arguing against stronger regulations on oil trains.

Much of my book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk highlights how API successfully uses “The Hill” — i.e. Congress —  to stop regulation and describes the central role the organization plays, as noted in this passage in which National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman asks API representative Lee Johnson when safer rail tank cars could be expected:

In Congressional hearings, at rail industry conferences, and in funding supposedly independent studies of the issue, it was always API dictating what happened on “The Hill.” 

As revealed by UnEarthed, Exxon lobbyist McCoy spelled out how it works in the recently released recordings: 

“So you start to build out a coalition of associations. Now, companies feed into that privately where we have meetings, but the public face of it are the associations: they go to the Hill, they have these conversations.” 

Exxon was rarely mentioned in the oil-by-rail regulatory process even though API was omnipresent. However, as McCoy noted, Exxon is directing API. On the tapes, he described how it worked, saying, “And so the API staff person who worked on that issue, We’d say, you know, ‘Hey Tom, you need to go to The Hill and you need to have a conversation with the committee.’” 

This is similar to what Scott Sheffield, CEO of U.S. oil company Pioneer Resources, said in 2020 when he told CNBC that it was Exxon leading discussions on a possible industry bailout and that Exxon “controls the API.” 

Exxon’s Slide from a 2014 presentation to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Arguing Against Thicker Tank Shells for Oil Tank Cars

On the tapes released by UnEarthed, McCoy also mentioned another tactic, in this instance regarding the “forever chemicals” PFAS, that trade groups like API also employed to fight oil-by-rail safety regulations and even have repealed the regulations that the Department of Transportation approved in 2015. As UnEarthed reported:

“McCoy claimed that an Exxon-instigated advocacy push had delayed tighter regulations on PFAS by successfully lobbying for a government study of the chemicals.”

These studies are often commissioned by Congress, take years to complete, and then often are used to prevent or repeal regulations. 

The reason oil-by-rail needed new regulations is because oil trains kept blowing up when they derailed — with five oil train derailments resulting in large fires by the time API representative Lee Johnson began downplaying the risks of these trains in the 2014 hearings on new regulations In the idyllic town of Lac-Mégantic, that disaster resulted in the death of 47 people. Those people died because the Bakken oil being transported by rail is highly volatile and flammable. The science is very clear on this.

This week was the 8th anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Yet today, that highly volatile and flammable oil is still being moved by rail, in part because API fought regulations and won. How? By pushing for more studies of the issue as a delay tactic. 

A year after the 2013 accident, oil industry associations funded two studies which were held up as evidence by API CEO Jack Gerard that the volatile Bakken oil shouldn’t be regulated to reduce the risk of explosions and fires in derailments. 

“It is essential to separate fact from fiction as we work to enhance the safe transportation of crude oil,” API CEO Jack Gerard said in 2014, “Multiple studies have now debunked the idea that Bakken crude is meaningfully different than other crudes.”

This statement has no basis in science. But it worked to stop proposed regulation and it was helped by a study requested by Congress that was released in mid-2105. The study was immediately touted by API as more proof that Bakken oil should not be regulated. 

The API press release at the time stated: “The Department of Energy found no data showing correlation between crude oil properties and the likelihood or severity of a fire caused by a derailment.”

This video shows two members of Congress reading prepared statements in a hearing that used API’s language about that study’s conclusion, word for word.

It should be no surprise that these tactics, first employed by the tobacco industry, were also adopted by other lobbyists, including oil and rail industry lobbyists.  

As DeSmog reported, in 2017 the rail industry was able to get regulations requiring modern braking systems for trains repealed based on another congressionally requested study. This government-funded study, however, did not accurately reflect the science on the issue. In this case, the rail industry had even touted the known science for years before reversing course and insisting to the public and lawmakers that it was not valid. 

In 2016, Suzanne Lemieux, a representative of the American Petroleum Institute, spoke at an energy-by-rail conference. She argued against the idea that the volatile oil being transported by rail needed to be regulated in a presentation titled, “Crude Oil Volatility: Myth vs. Fact.” 

Her message was quite clear. 

“I would say that all of these conversations about [how] Bakken is inherently more dangerous, it’s more volatile, etcetera, etcetera, those things from a chemical properties perspective just aren’t true. And so we in the oil and gas industry see this as a very dangerous conversation.”

Forty seven people died because of the oil industry’s dangerous product. However, API took the position that even discussing how to avoid a repeat of the oil train explosion at Lac-Megantic was too dangerous of a conversation to have. 

And it worked. 

DeSmog contacted Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute inquiring if the two coordinated efforts to influence oil-by-rail regulations. 

“As a member-driven organization, we collaborate across our membership on a wide range of policy issues, from advancing smart and effective regulations and strong standards for rail safety to advocating for lower-carbon solutions to tackle climate change,” said API spokeswoman Bethany Aronhalt via email.  “We also continue to advocate for modernized pipeline infrastructure, which is the safest most efficient way to deliver the energy Americans rely on every single day.” 

Exxon did not respond other than to ask for specific questions, which were provided, but not answered. 

For much greater detail on how the oil-by-rail regulatory process unfolded, read Chapter 4, “Follow the Money,” of my book Bomb Trains, which dives into API’s role in the process.  

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Justin Mikulka is a research fellow at New Consensus. Prior to joining New Consensus in October 2021, Justin reported for DeSmog, where he began in 2014. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

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