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Centrist Think Tanks Are Raking In Exxon Cash

An annual ExxonMobil report shows the company routinely giving six-figure sums to Brookings, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and similar institutions.

Darren Woods walks with others.
Mark Schiefelbein/Pool/Getty Images
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods

Not everyone is happy about Unearthed’s recent exposé on ExxonMobil. Shortly after the Greenpeace-attached journalistic outfit published quotes top Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy unknowingly gave to an undercover reporter about the oil giant’s attempts to shape climate policy, Brookings Institution Executive Vice President Darell M. West penned a blog post declaring that “using secret video recordings to embarrass opponents is undermining the health of our already ailing American democracy.” He also likened Unearthed to the right-wing sting operation Project Veritas.

West didn’t mention that Brookings received $100,000 from ExxonMobil last year, according to the oil company’s own disclosures. He also didn’t mention that, in parts of the transcript Unearthed did not publish but which they subsequently provided to The New Republic, Brookings is mentioned explicitly by McCoy as one of two think tanks his company is “actively involved in.”

Brookings isn’t the only policy shop getting ExxonMobil’s cash. Exxon’s annual “Worldwide Giving Report”—released last month—tallies up the company’s “community investments” to “address strategic local priorities where we do business around the world.” These include anti-malaria efforts and STEM education programs along with its funding for groups that provide “Public Information and Policy Research.” This last group includes a few standard right-leaning, business-friendly outfits like the Chamber of Commerce, but also several institutions widely considered to be more politically neutral, whose experts are frequently quoted as outside analysts on everything from infrastructure talks to oil markets. These institutions often feed experts to top posts in the White House and serve as landing pads for ex-administration officials when their parties lose control, weighing in on key policy debates with recommendations for lawmakers.

“Worldwide Giving” reports from previous years show similar figures, with some groups dropping in and out and line items fluctuating. In 2019, for instance, Brookings received $250,000 from ExxonMobil. It got $250,000 in 2018, $240,000 in 2017, and $380,000 in 2016, according to previous “Worldwide Giving” reports compiled by researcher Connor Gibson. As Climate Investigations Center founder Kert Davies explained to me previously, there is no legal obligation for Exxon to reveal these numbers.

The Bipartisan Policy Center received $200,000 in General Support funds from ExxonMobil last year. BPC media relations director Luci Manning told me that BPC funding “reflects the character and diversity of the organization,” pointing to an annual report showing the group gets funding from a wide range of corporate and philanthropic donors that includes Amazon and Blackrock, along with the American Petroleum Institute, the Charles Koch Institute, and ConocoPhillips. “BPC believes that all of its donors as well as its project members have interests. A strength of BPC’s consensus-based negotiation process is that no single interest can unduly influence consensus outcomes,” Manning said. She said that BPC and ExxonMobil have had a relationship for “more than a decade,” and that Exxon funds were “used to support activities across the entire BPC.”

ExxonMobil gave $100,000 to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Corporate Program in 2020. When contacted for comment on this sum, CFR’s Lisa Shields told me that Exxon is one of roughly 120 members of the think tank’s Corporate Program, “so these are membership dues. Membership dues provide unrestricted revenue for CFR, and these funds are applied across the organization,” and in total account for about nine percent of its total operating revenue. Corporate members, she said—which also include Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Total—have no influence on CFR’s research agenda nor outcomes.”

In 2019, the Progressive Policy Institute received $50,000 from ExxonMobil but was not listed on this year’s report. Notably, the right-wing Manhattan Institute—funded as well by Trump backer Rebekah Mercer—is apparently no longer getting Exxon funds, after receiving $90,000 in 2019.

Other right-leaning think tanks are still getting paid, though. The American Enterprise Institute got $100,000 in “General Support” funds last year. “AEI has a long-standing policy not to discuss its donors,” spokesperson Phoebe Keller told me over email, clarifying that the think tank “takes no institutional positions, does no contract research, and our scholars have academic freedom to follow their own research to conclusions without interference from management.” She said, as well, that around 10 percent of its revenue comes from corporations, with the rest coming from foundations and individuals.

Along with the Brookings Institution, McCoy named the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a key ally. (“We don’t work with some of the more hard-right ones like Heritage,” McCoy said, referring to the Heritage Foundation, which has a long history of funding climate skeptics.) The $100,000 Brookings received in 2020 was for its Corporate Council, per the “Worldwide Giving Report.” Spokesperson Andrea Risotto said over email that Exxon has supported Brookings’s Foreign Policy program for the last five years and contributed to the institution generally through its Corporate Council membership. “Exxon has made no direct contributions to support specific scholars or specific research projects, and its funding is not directed toward Brookings’s carbon tax or climate change related research,” she said.

“The institution and all its personnel are governed by robust guidelines on research independence that do not permit any outside parties to undermine or compromise the independence of our research or its recommendations,” Risotto added.

CSIS received $175,000 in general support funding and $500,000 for its Securing Our Future Capital Campaign. Its alumni include Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. CSIS chief communications officer H. Andrew Schwartz said over email that no one at CSIS had dealings with McCoy and that “we have not had any discussions with ExxonMobil concerning a carbon tax”—a topic I did not ask about but which McCoy mentioned on his call with Unearthed’s undercover reporter. Pressed on whether CSIS had discussed other policy-related issues with Exxon, Schwartz said, “We routinely invite Exxon, other oil and gas companies, and other companies more generally to our conferences and events. Exxon representatives attend these events. In that sense, we communicate with them.”

Exxon’s funding outside of the capital campaign—which feeds CSIS’s endowment—has been used to support CSIS’s Energy Security and Climate Change Program, Schwartz added. “Exxon funding is not earmarked for specific scholars, reports, or research. CSIS maintains complete independence over our research, findings, and recommendations. Our Energy, Security, and Climate Change Program covers a broad range of research topics,” he said. “Any reading of this work clearly demonstrates that we do not shill for any outside interests.”

Asked about the Unearthed report, ExxonMobil spokesperson Casey Norton said over email that “comments made by the individuals in no way represent the company’s position on a variety of issues.”

On the “Worldwide Giving Report,” Norton said that his company “provides support to organizations that promote international relationships, institutions with strong research capabilities that contribute to informed policy decision-making, and organizations that assess public policy alternatives on issues of importance to the petroleum and petrochemical industries.” On funding for particular think tanks mentioned in this article, he said that “AEI, BPC, Brookings, and CSIS are known for their collaborative approach and assembling a diversity of views to develop and research domestic and global policies on a variety of issues. We support those efforts.” Norton noted, finally, that Exxon chairman and CEO Darren Woods sits on CSIS’s board of trustees.

How you interpret this set of facts depends on how you think about financial incentives and corporate giving. ExxonMobil, at the end of the day, is a company; presumably, it is not pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars a year into centrist think tanks for fun. The oil giant already maintains an impressive official lobbying operation, and donates generously to politicians. But by funding the institutions that help define ideas about what constitutes a reasonable climate debate, the company may be exerting more influence over public discourse than the public realizes.