May 31st, 2017 by Steve Hanley, Source: Think Progress, Fossil Fuel Groups Attempt To Flee Our Children’s Trust Lawsuit
“API and its members will not come clean on the facts of climate change because they know it exposes them to liability for the damage they too have caused to the global climate system,” Julia Olson, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said in a statement. “After these youths sued the government, the trade associations pleaded their members’ interests would be destroyed if they weren’t allowed to be in the case, but now they are running for the hills. Now, they’ve decided they’re better off being on the sidelines than subjecting themselves to discovery.”
“API masterminded the infamous 1998 ‘roadmap’ memo that outlined a plan to cultivate purportedly independent scientists as climate disinformers, confuse the public on climate science and derail climate policies,” Kathy Mulvey, climate accountability campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “What we know is just the tip of the melting iceberg and API is now desperately trying to keep other evidence of its dirty tricks from coming to public light. Big Oil cannot continue to hide behind trade groups — we will hold them accountable.”
These companies are smack in the middle of what may turn out to be the biggest criminal conspiracy in history. If they are forced to answer the questions posed to them, they could prove they are at the heart of the climate denial lie.
The federal rules of civil procedure give judges wide latitude to enforce them. If the court refuses to allow then to withdraw and the companies refuse to comply, contempt citations could follow. The court also has the power to force the defendants to pay any attorneys fees incurred by the plaintiffs to uncover the truth by other means.
Courts are usually disinclined to give much solace to litigants they believe are trying to manipulate them. The final chapter has yet to be written to this story, but the fossil fuel companies, through their own arrogance, now seem to be well and truly hoist on their own petard. ExxonMobil is a member of API. Any answers it gives in this case could be used against it in the investigations being pursued by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York. To invoke Shakespeare once again, “Oh what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive.” If there is any justice in the world, the court will refuse to allow these scofflaws to withdraw from this case.
From Inside Climate News, 20 May 2017 – on Exxon climate change info and discussions under alias email by former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, that won’t be shared
The probe of ExxonMobil by the New York Attorney General’s Office is widening. Investigators have taken depositions of company executives and issued additional subpoenas to determine whether the company may have destroyed evidence connected to an alias email used by former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson.
The disclosure was made Friday in arguments filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in a Manhattan federal court. He is seeking dismissal of a request by Exxon for an injunction that would halt his investigation into the oil giant involving whether it misled shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.
Attorneys for Schneiderman did not elaborate in the 25-page document on the scope of the expanded investigation other than to suggest that it involved the recent disclosure that Tillerson, now U.S. secretary of state, used an email alias when discussing issues including climate change and the risk that it posed to the company. Healey’s office echoed that position in its brief.
The disclosure by Schneiderman’s office of a widening investigation focused on the possible destruction of evidence that heightened the stakes. “In this ongoing investigation, the NYOAG has served additional subpoenas upon Exxon,” according to the New York brief. “For example, because of concern about spoliation of documents, and in conformance with proceedings before the New York court on that issue, the NYOAG has taken, pursuant to subpoena, testimony of witnesses who may possess information relevant to spoliation.”
The expanded investigation comes after Exxon conceded that it failed to preserve all documents from Tillerson’s shadow email account, under the alias Wayne Tracker, and has failed to turn over other documents from top executives. New York investigators said in the brief that “no preservation hold was placed on Wayne Tracker” emails by Exxon, a process meant to insure they were not destroyed.
“We have and will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to get to the bottom of these issues and to further our investigation,” said Amy Spitalnick, Schneiderman’s press secretary.
An Exxon spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Exxon has until June 16 to formally respond in court.
Schneiderman’s office disclosed the existence of Tillerson’s alternate email as part of an open investigation of Exxon that began in November 2015 in connection with possible securities fraud over whether the company misled shareholders and the public about climate change. Tillerson used the Wayne Tracker email account for eight years to discuss, among other things, climate change-related issues and the risks they posed to the company’s business, investigators claim. The company turned over a handful of the emails in January and at that time said the emails had been overlooked because the company did not have the technical capability to identify them. Exxon later said it could account for all but a one-month period of emails from Tillerson’s alternate email account, from September to November 2014, according to a letter to a New York state court judge.
Inside Climate News, October 2015
As he wrapped up nine years as the federal government’s chief scientist for global warming research, Michael MacCracken lashed out at ExxonMobil for opposing the advance of climate science. His own great-grandfather, he told the Exxon board, had been John D. Rockefeller’s legal counsel a century earlier. “What I rather imagine he would say is that you are on the wrong side of history, and you need to find a way to change your position,” he wrote.
No wonder: in the opening days of the oil-friendly Bush-Cheney administration, Exxon’s chief lobbyist had written the new head of the White House environmental council demanding that MacCracken be fired for “political and scientific bias.” Exxon was also attacking other officials in the U.S. government and at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), MacCracken wrote, interfering with their work behind the scenes and distorting it in public.
Exxon wanted scientists who disputed the mainstream science on climate change to oversee Washington’s work with the IPCC, the authoritative body that defines the scientific consensus on global warming, documents written by an Exxon lobbyist and one of its scientists show.
Exxon persuaded the White House to block the reappointment of the IPCC chairman, a World Bank scientist. Exxon’s top climate researcher, Brian Flannery, was pushing the White House for a wholesale revision of federal climate science. The company wanted a new strategy to focus on the uncertainties.
“To call ExxonMobil’s position out of the mainstream is thus a gross understatement,” MacCracken wrote. “To be in opposition to the key scientific findings is rather appalling for such an established and scientific organization.”
MacCracken had a long history of collaboration with Exxon researchers. He knew that during the 1970s and 1980s, well before the general public understood the risks of global warming, the company’s researchers had worked at the cutting edge of climate change science. He had edited and even co-authored some of their reports. So he found it galling that Exxon was now leading a concerted effort to sow confusion about fossil fuels, carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect.
Exxon had turned a colleague into its enemy.
It was a vivid example of Exxon’s undermining of mainstream science and embrace of denial and misinformation, which became most pronounced after President George W. Bush took office. The campaign climaxed when Bush pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Taking the U.S. out of the international climate change treaty was Exxon’s key goal, and the reason for its persistent emphasis on the uncertainty of climate science.
This in-depth series by InsideClimate News has explored Exxon’s early engagement with climate research more than 35 years ago – and its subsequent use of scientific uncertainty as a shield against forceful action on global warming. The series is based on Exxon documents, interviews, and other evidence from an eight-month investigation.
“What happened was an incredible disconnect in people trained in physical science and engineering,” recalled Martin Hoffert, a New York University professor who collaborated with Exxon’s team as its early computer modeling confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming. “It’s an untold story of how we got to the point where climate change has become a threat to the world.”
The Uncertainty Agenda
As the Bush-Cheney administration arrived in the White House in 2001, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) now had partners for a climate uncertainty strategy. Just weeks after Bush was sworn in, Exxon’s top lobbyist Randy Randol sent the White House a memo complaining that “Clinton/Gore carry-overs with aggressive agendas” were still playing a role at the IPCC as it prepared its next assessment of the climate science consensus.
MacCracken and three colleagues should be replaced, or at least kept out of “any decisional activities,” he wrote. Meanwhile, U.S. input to the IPCC should be delayed.
Further, two scientists highly critical of the prevailing consensus should be enlisted: John Christy of the University of Alabama should take the science lead and Richard Lindzen of MIT should review U.S. submissions to the IPCC.
Exxon had been circulating a proposal to fundamentally overhaul MacCracken’s global change research program, by emphasizing the uncertainties of climate science.
The timing was not coincidental because the administration, as required by law, was about to lay out a new federal climate research strategy. Exxon and its allies wanted the work done during the Clinton-Gore years to be marginalized.
In March 2002, Flannery, Exxon’s science strategy and programs manager, contacted John H. Marburger, the president’s incoming assistant for science and technology, to pitch the company’s favored approach of emphasizing the uncertainty. Earlier discussions, he asserted, “have not sought to place the uncertainty in the context of why it is important to public policy.”
Exxon’s position paper, attached to his letter, took a dig at the work of the IPCC.
“A major frustration to many is the all-too-apparent bias of IPCC to downplay the significance of scientific uncertainty and gaps,” the memo said.
A Seat at the Table
Exxon had not always been so at odds with the prevailing science.
Since the late 1970s, Exxon scientists had been telling top executives that the most likely cause of climate change was carbon pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels, and that it was important to get a grip on the problem quickly. Exxon Research & Engineering had launched innovative ocean research from aboard the company’s biggest supertanker, the Esso Atlantic. ER&E’s modeling experts, by the early 1980s, had confirmed the consensus among outside scientists about the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide.
“The facts are that we identified the potential risks of climate change and have taken the issue very seriously,” said Ken Cohen, Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs, in a press release on October 21 addressing the ICN reports. “We embarked on decades of research in collaboration with many parties.”
Exxon has declined to answer specific questions from InsideClimate News.
A 1980 memo proposed an ambitious public-relations plan aimed at “achieving national recognition of our CO2 Greenhouse research program.”
“It is significant to Exxon since future public decisions aimed at controlling the build-up of atmospheric CO2 could impose limits on fossil fuel combustion,” said the memo. “It is significant to all humanity since, although the CO2 Greenhouse Effect is not today widely perceived as a threat, the popular media are giving increased attention to doom-saying theories about dramatic climate changes and melting polar icecaps.”
Most of all, Exxon wanted a seat at the policy-making table, and the credibility of its research had earned that. In 1979, David Slade, manager of carbon dioxide research at the Energy Department, called it “a model for research contributions from the corporate sector.”
Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat, invited Henry Shaw, an early Exxon scientist, to join the policy deliberations. He was the only industry representative invited to an October 1980 conference of the National Commission on Air Quality, newly set up by Congress, to discuss “whether potential consequences of increased carbon dioxide levels warrant development of policies to mitigate adverse effects.”
Shaw’s bosses agreed that he should attend, “both to be informed as to what actions or proposals that result and to bring objective thinking and information to the meeting,” Harold Weinberg, Shaw’s boss in Exxon Research and Engineering, wrote in a memo. But first, he said, Shaw needed to be briefed by public affairs executives “on possible hidden agenda and individual biases of which we may not already be aware.” Then, when Shaw gave feedback to the commission in December, he noted the uncertainties about carbon dioxide and climate change. At the same time, he wrote that it was “important” to place CO2 on the nation’s public policy agenda, as the commission was recommending, and supported the panel’s suggestion that it was “timely to consider ways of reducing CO2 emissions now.”
He also backed a recommendation that the U.S. “seek to develop discussions on national and international policies.”
In late spring of 1981, Flannery was one of the few industry representatives at a large gathering of accomplished scientists at Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., for a Department of Energy “Workshop on First Detection of Carbon Dioxide Effects.” He sat on a panel with NASA’s James Hansen, who was about to publish a landmark study in Science magazine warning of significant warming even if controls were placed on carbon emissions.
The workshop’s proceedings would declare that “scientists are agreed” that carbon dioxide was building up in the atmosphere, that the effects “are well known” and “will bring about an increase in the mean global temperature,” and that it is “commonly accepted” that warming “will affect the biosphere through a change in climate.”
Working with Hoffert, Flannery wrote a highly technical 50-page chapter to a 1985 Energy Department report. Their modeling projected up to 6 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the 21st century unless emissions of greenhouse gases were curtailed.
The influential government report said the models provided a “firm basis” for this kind of projection, and that “we are already committed to some of this warming as a result of emissions over the last several decades.”
The Harper’s Ferry conference was chaired by MacCracken; he also edited the warming report. He recalled recently that “the underlying push was for a level of understanding that was convincing enough to let policymakers become aware of what the issue was that society faced.”
As Hoffert put it in a recent interview, in those days at Exxon “there were no divisions, no agendas. We were coming together as scientists to address issues of vital importance to the world.”
Fork in the Road
In 1988, James Hansen told Congress that there was now enough warming to declare that the greenhouse effect had arrived. Also that year, the United Nations set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
It was a moment that Exxon’s climate experts had been forecasting for a decade: that as warming became unmistakable, governments would move to control it.
Looking backward, one Exxon document from the early 1990s reflects a trail of research into global warming stretching back “long before the issue achieved its current prominence.”
An internal compendium of the company’s environmental record, on file in the official ExxonMobil historical archives at the University of Texas-Austin, acknowledged the uncertainties that have always faced climate researchers, but it didn’t downplay the risks.
“Fossil fuel use dominates as the source of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide,” said one section of the encyclopedic review. “Current scientific understanding demonstrates the potential for climate change to produce serious impacts.”
“For Exxon and the petroleum industry, potential enhancement of the greenhouse effect and the possibility of adverse climate are of particular and fundamental concern,” it said.
Drilling for Uncertainty
The IPCC published its first report in 1990. Despite the scientific gaps, the panel warned that unrestrained emissions from burning fossil fuels would surely warm the planet in the century ahead. The conclusion, the IPCC said after intense deliberations, was “certain.” It prescribed deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to stave off a crisis in the coming decades.
At this crucial juncture, Exxon pivoted toward uncertainty and away from the global scientific consensus.
At the IPCC’s final session to draft its summary for policymakers, Exxon’s Flannery was in the room as an observer. He took the microphone to challenge both the certainty and the remedy. None of the other scientists agreed with Flannery, and the IPCC brushed off Exxon’s advice to water down the report, according to Jeremy Leggett’s eyewitness account in his book, The Carbon War.
At a conference in June 1991, MacCracken joined a panel chaired by Flannery to work together on a climate change project involving geo-engineering.
The contact, according to MacCracken, led to an unexpected solicitation from the oil lobby in Washington. Will Ollison, a science adviser at the American Petroleum Institute, in a fax marked urgent, asked MacCracken, then at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to write a paper highlighting the scientific uncertainties surrounding global warming.
The API, where Exxon held enormous sway, wanted him to write up the complex nuances in plain English – with an emphasis on the unknown, not the known.
Ollison said the IPCC’s 1990 report “may not have adequately addressed alternative views.”
“A review of these alternative projections would be useful in illustrating the uncertainties inherent in the ‘consensus’ views expressed in the IPCC report,” Ollison wrote.
MacCracken rejected the task as “fruitless.”
“I would caution you about too readily accepting whatever the naysayers put forth as a means of achieving balance,” MacCracken wrote back.
Flannery, for his part, continued to emphasize uncertainty. And so did Exxon’s new chairman and chief executive, Lee Raymond, who spoke of it repeatedly in public.
“Currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate,” Raymond claimed in a speech delivered in 1996 to the Economic Club of Detroit.
“Many people, politicians and the public alike, believe that global warming is a rock-solid certainty,” he said the next year in a speech in Beijing. “But it’s not.”
Addressing the World Petroleum Congress, which was meeting just before the conclusion of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, Raymond even disputed that the planet was warming at all. “The earth is cooler today than it was 20 years ago,” he said. That was false. Authoritative climate agencies declared 1997 the warmest year ever measured. Decade by decade, the warming has continued, in line with the climate models. But Raymond, turning his back on Exxon researchers and their state-of-the-art work, mocked those climate models. “1990’s models were predicting temperature increases of two to five degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Last year’s models say one to three degrees. Where to next year?” “It is highly unlikely,” he said, “that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.”
The Doubt Industry
Exxon and its allies had been working hard to spread this dilatory message. First, they set up the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying partnership of leading oil and automobile companies dedicated to defeating controls on carbon pollution. “As major corporations with a high level of internal scientific and technical expertise, they were aware of and in a position to understand the available scientific data,” recounts an essay on corporate responsibility for climate change published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change.
“From 1989 to 2002, the GCC led an aggressive lobbying and advertising campaign aimed at achieving these goals by sowing doubt about the integrity of the IPCC and the scientific evidence that heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels drive global warming,” says the article, by Harvard climate science historian Naomi Oreskes and two co-authors.
Then, in 1998 Exxon also helped create the Global Climate Science Team, an effort involving Randy Randol, the company’s top lobbyist, and Joe Walker, a public relations representative for API.
Their memo, leaked to The New York Times, asserted that it is “not known for sure whether (a) climate change actually is occurring, or (b) if it is, whether humans really have any influence on it.” Opponents of the Kyoto treaty, it complained, “have done little to build a case against precipitous action on climate change based on the scientific uncertainty.”
The memo declared: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science,” and when “recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.'”
Exxon wholeheartedly embraced that theme. For example, an advertisement called “Unsettled Science” that ran in major papers in the spring of 2000, prompted one scientist to complain that it had distorted his work by suggesting it supported the notion that global warming was just a natural cycle. “It’s a shame,” Lloyd Keigwin later told the Wall Street Journal. “The implication is that these data show that we don’t need to worry about global warming.”
Another ad, one of a series placed in The New York Times, cast aspersions on scientists who “believe they can predict changes in climate decades from now.”
Then, in the heat of the 2000 presidential race between climate champion Al Gore and erstwhile oilman George W. Bush, Exxon placed an ad in the Washington Post accusing MacCracken’s office of putting the “political cart before a scientific horse.”
Blowing the Whistle
The collaboration between Exxon, its surrogates, and the Bush administration to emphasize uncertainty and stave off action came to light in 2005.
A whistleblower named Rick Piltz disclosed that Philip Cooney, an oil lobbyist who had become chief of staff at the White House environmental council, had been heavily editing the work of government researchers. Cooney resigned, and was hired by Exxon.
But the clashes continued between the scientific establishment and Exxon’s purveyors of uncertainty. The Royal Society of the United Kingdom, for centuries a renowned arbiter of science, harshly criticized Exxon in 2006 for publishing “very misleading” statements about the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report. The IPCC found that most of the observed warming of the planet in the late 20th century was probably caused by humans. The Society’s communications manager Bob Ward reminded Exxon pointedly that one of its own scientists had contributed to the IPCC chapter in question. The Royal Society said it had no problem with Exxon funding scientific research, but “we do have concerns about ExxonMobil’s funding of lobby groups that seek to misrepresent the scientific evidence relating to climate change.”
Ward said Exxon was funding at least 39 organizations “featuring information on their websites that misrepresented the science on climate change, by outright denial of the evidence that greenhouse gases are driving climate change, or by overstating the amount and significance of uncertainty in knowledge.”
In 2007, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report detailing Exxon’s campaign of uncertainty, including a table identifying dozens of organizations that the group said had received $16 million in Exxon contributions over several years. (Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists)
Exxon’s uncertainty campaign was detailed in three exhaustive reports published in 2007 by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project.
At a Congressional hearing in 2007, Harvard scientist James McCarthy, who was a member of the UCS board and the newly elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, declared: “The Bush administration and a network of Exxon-funded, ExxonMobil funded organizations have sought to distort, manipulate and suppress climate science so as to confuse the American public about the urgency of the global warming problem, and thus, forestall a strong policy response.”
While Rex Tillerson, the current chairman, doesn’t echo Lee Raymond’s science denial in his formal speeches, he sometimes backslides when speaking off the cuff. At Exxon’s annual meeting in 2015, Tillerson said it would be best to wait for more solid science before acting on climate change. “What if everything we do, it turns out our models are lousy, and we don’t get the effects we predict?” he asked.
And in its formal annual energy forecasts, as well as in its latest report on the implications of its carbon footprint, Exxon adopts business-as-usual assumptions. It deflects the question of how much carbon will build up in the world’s atmosphere over the next few decades, or how much the planet will warm as a result. “As part of our energy outlook process, we do not project overall atmospheric GHG [greenhouse gas] concentration, nor do we model global average temperature impacts,” both reports say. In footnotes, Exxon offers this excuse: “These would require data inputs that are well beyond our company’s ability to reasonably measure or verify.”
Click here for Part 1, an overview of Exxon’s history with climate change; Part II, an accounting of Exxon’s early climate research; Part III, a review of Exxon’s climate modeling efforts; Part IV, a dive into Exxon’s Natuna gas field project; Part V, a look at Exxon’s push for synfuels.
ICN staff members Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song, Zahra Hirji, and Paul Horn also contributed to this report.
At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.
“In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.
It was July 1977 when Exxon’s leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.
A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.
“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.
His presentations reflected uncertainty running through scientific circles about the details of climate change, such as the role the oceans played in absorbing emissions. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. “Present thinking,” he wrote in the 1978 summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon’s ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.
Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.
This untold chapter in Exxon’s history, when one of the world’s largest energy companies worked to understand the damage caused by fossil fuels, stems from an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News. ICN’s reporters interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists, and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents, many of them written between 1977 and 1986, during the heyday of Exxon’s innovative climate research program. ICN combed through thousands of documents from archives including those held at the University of Texas-Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The documents record budget requests, research priorities, and debates over findings, and reveal the arc of Exxon’s internal attitudes and work on climate and how much attention the results received.
Of particular significance was a project launched in August 1979, when the company outfitted a supertanker with custom-made instruments. The project’s mission was to sample carbon dioxide in the air and ocean along a route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf.
In 1980, Exxon assembled a team of climate modelers who investigated fundamental questions about the climate’s sensitivity to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the air. Working with university scientists and the U.S. Department of Energy, Exxon strove to be on the cutting edge of inquiry into what was then called the greenhouse effect.
Exxon’s early determination to understand rising carbon dioxide levels grew out of a corporate culture of farsightedness, former employees said. They described a company that continuously examined risks to its bottom line, including environmental factors. In the 1970s, Exxon modeled its research division after Bell Labs, staffing it with highly accomplished scientists and engineers.
In written responses to questions about the history of its research, ExxonMobil spokesman Richard D. Keil said that “from the time that climate change first emerged as a topic for scientific study and analysis in the late 1970s, ExxonMobil has committed itself to scientific, fact-based analysis of this important issue.”
“At all times,” he said, “the opinions and conclusions of our scientists and researchers on this topic have been solidly within the mainstream of the consensus scientific opinion of the day and our work has been guided by an overarching principle to follow where the science leads. The risk of climate change is real and warrants action.”
At the outset of its climate investigations almost four decades ago, many Exxon executives, middle managers and scientists armed themselves with a sense of urgency and mission.
One manager at Exxon Research, Harold N. Weinberg, shared his “grandiose thoughts” about Exxon’s potential role in climate research in a March 1978 internal company memorandum that read: “This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind.”
His sentiment was echoed by Henry Shaw, the scientist leading the company’s nascent carbon dioxide research effort.
“Exxon must develop a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation,” Shaw wrote to his boss Edward E. David, the president of Exxon Research and Engineering in 1978. “This team must be recognized for its excellence in the scientific community, the government, and internally by Exxon management.”
Irreversible and Catastrophic
Exxon budgeted more than $1 million over three years for the tanker project to measure how quickly the oceans were taking in CO2. It was a small fraction of Exxon Research’s annual $300 million budget, but the question the scientists tackled was one of the biggest uncertainties in climate science: how quickly could the deep oceans absorb atmospheric CO2? If Exxon could pinpoint the answer, it would know how long it had before CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere could force a transition away from fossil fuels.
Exxon also hired scientists and mathematicians to develop better climate models and publish research results in peer-reviewed journals. By 1982, the company’s own scientists, collaborating with outside researchers, created rigorous climate models – computer programs that simulate the workings of the climate to assess the impact of emissions on global temperatures. They confirmed an emerging scientific consensus that warming could be even worse than Black had warned five years earlier.
Exxon’s research laid the groundwork for a 1982 corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change prepared by its environmental affairs office. Marked “not to be distributed externally,” it contained information that “has been given wide circulation to Exxon management.” In it, the company recognized, despite the many lingering unknowns, that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”
Unless that happened, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” the primer said, citing independent experts. “Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
The Certainty of Uncertainty
Like others in the scientific community, Exxon researchers acknowledged the uncertainties surrounding many aspects of climate science, especially in the area of forecasting models. But they saw those uncertainties as questions they wanted to address, not an excuse to dismiss what was increasingly understood.
“Models are controversial,” Roger Cohen, head of theoretical sciences at Exxon Corporate Research Laboratories, and his colleague, Richard Werthamer, senior technology advisor at Exxon Corporation, wrote in a May 1980 status report on Exxon’s climate modeling program. “Therefore, there are research opportunities for us.”
When Exxon’s researchers confirmed information the company might find troubling, they did not sweep it under the rug.
“Over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged,” Cohen wrote in September 1982, reporting on Exxon’s own analysis of climate models. It was that a doubling of the carbon dioxide blanket in the atmosphere would produce average global warming of 3 degrees Celsius, plus or minus 1.5 degrees C (equal to 5 degrees Fahrenheit plus or minus 1.7 degrees F).
“There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate,” he wrote, “including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”
He warned that publication of the company’s conclusions might attract media attention because of the “connection between Exxon’s major business and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2.”
Nevertheless, he recommended publication.
Our “ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature,” Cohen wrote. “Indeed, to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon’s public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.”
Exxon followed his advice. Between 1983 and 1984, its researchers published their results in at least three peer-reviewed papers in Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and an American Geophysical Union monograph.
David, the head of Exxon Research, told a global warming conference financed by Exxon in October 1982 that “few people doubt that the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation.” The only question, he said, was how fast this would happen.
But the challenge did not daunt him. “I’m generally upbeat about the chances of coming through this most adventurous of all human experiments with the ecosystem,” David said.
Exxon considered itself unique among corporations for its carbon dioxide and climate research. The company boasted in a January 1981 report, “Scoping Study on CO2,” that no other company appeared to be conducting similar in-house research into carbon dioxide, and it swiftly gained a reputation among outsiders for genuine expertise.
“We are very pleased with Exxon’s research intentions related to the CO2 question. This represents very responsible action, which we hope will serve as a model for research contributions from the corporate sector,” said David Slade, manager of the federal government’s carbon dioxide research program at the Energy Department, in a May 1979 letter to Shaw. “This is truly a national and international service.”
In the early 1980s Exxon researchers often repeated that unbiased science would give it legitimacy in helping shape climate-related laws that would affect its profitability.
Still, corporate executives remained cautious about what they told Exxon’s shareholders about global warming and the role petroleum played in causing it, a review of federal filings shows. The company did not elaborate on the carbon problem in annual reports filed with securities regulators during the height of its CO2 research.
Nor did it mention in those filings that concern over CO2 was beginning to influence business decisions it was facing.
Throughout the 1980s, the company was worried about developing an enormous gas field off the coast of Indonesia because of the vast amount of CO2 the unusual reservoir would release.
Exxon was also concerned about reports that synthetic oil made from coal, tar sands and oil shales could significantly boost CO2 emissions. The company was banking on synfuels to meet growing demand for energy in the future, in a world it believed was running out of conventional oil.
In the mid-1980s, after an unexpected oil glut caused prices to collapse, Exxon cut its staff deeply to save money, including many working on climate. But the climate change problem remained, and it was becoming a more prominent part of the political landscape.
“Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate,” declared the headline of a June 1988 New York Times article describing the Congressional testimony of NASA’s James Hansen, a leading climate expert. Hansen’s statements compelled Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) to declare during the hearing that “Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend.”
With alarm bells suddenly ringing, Exxon started financing efforts to amplify doubt about the state of climate science.
Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world’s largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.
As the international community moved in 1997 to take a first step in curbing emissions with the Kyoto Protocol, Exxon’s chairman and CEO Lee Raymond argued to stop it. “Let’s agree there’s a lot we really don’t know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond,” Raymond said in his speech before the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing in October 1997. “We need to understand the issue better, and fortunately, we have time,” he said. “It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.”
Over the years, several Exxon scientists who had confirmed the climate consensus during its early research, including Cohen and David, took Raymond’s side, publishing views that ran contrary to the scientific mainstream.
Paying the Price
Exxon’s about-face on climate change earned the scorn of the scientific establishment it had once courted. In 2006, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s science academy, sent a harsh letter to Exxon accusing it of being “inaccurate and misleading” on the question of climate uncertainty. Bob Ward, the Academy’s senior manager for policy communication, demanded that Exxon stop giving money to dozens of organizations he said were actively distorting the science. In 2008, under mounting pressure from activist shareholders, the company announced it would end support for some prominent groups such as those Ward had identified. Still, the millions of dollars Exxon had spent since the 1990s on climate change deniers had long surpassed what it had once invested in its path-breaking climate science aboard the Esso Atlantic.
“They spent so much money and they were the only company that did this kind of research as far as I know,” Edward Garvey, who was a key researcher on Exxon’s oil tanker project, said in a recent interview with InsideClimate News and Frontline. “That was an opportunity not just to get a place at the table, but to lead, in many respects, some of the discussion. And the fact that they chose not to do that into the future is a sad point.”
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, who has been a frequent target of climate deniers, said that inaction, just like actions, have consequences. When he recently spoke to InsideClimate News, he was unaware of this chapter in Exxon’s history.
“All it would’ve taken is for one prominent fossil fuel CEO to know this was about more than just shareholder profits, and a question about our legacy,” he said. “But now because of the cost of inaction—what I call the ‘procrastination penalty’—we face a far more uphill battle.”
Click here for Part II, an accounting of Exxon’s early climate research; Part III, a review of Exxon’s climate modeling efforts; Part IV, a dive into Exxon’s Natuna gas field project; Part V, a look at Exxon’s push for synfuels; Part VI, an accounting of Exxon’s emphasis on climate science uncertainty.
ICN staff members Zahra Hirji, Paul Horn, Naveena Sadasivam, Sabrina Shankman and Alexander Wood also contributed to this report.
President’s George Bush’s decision not to sign the United States up to the Kyoto global warming treaty was partly a result of pressure from ExxonMobil, the world’s most powerful oil company, and other industries, according to US State Department papers seen by the Guardian.The documents, which emerged as Tony Blair visited the White House for discussions on climate change before next month’s G8 meeting, reinforce widely-held suspicions of how close the company is to the administration and its role in helping to formulate US policy.
In briefing papers given before meetings to the US under-secretary of state, Paula Dobriansky, between 2001 and 2004, the administration is found thanking Exxon executives for the company’s “active involvement” in helping to determine climate change policy, and also seeking its advice on what climate change policies the company might find acceptable.
Other papers suggest that Ms Dobriansky should sound out Exxon executives and other anti-Kyoto business groups on potential alternatives to Kyoto.
Until now Exxon has publicly maintained that it had no involvement in the US government’s rejection of Kyoto. But the documents, obtained by Greenpeace under US freedom of information legislation, suggest this is not the case.
“Potus [president of the United States] rejected Kyoto in part based on input from you [the Global Climate Coalition],” says one briefing note before Ms Dobriansky’s meeting with the GCC, the main anti-Kyoto US industry group, which was dominated by Exxon.
The papers further state that the White House considered Exxon “among the companies most actively and prominently opposed to binding approaches [like Kyoto] to cut greenhouse gas emissions”.
But in evidence to the UK House of Lords science and technology committee in 2003, Exxon’s head of public affairs, Nick Thomas, said: “I think we can say categorically we have not campaigned with the United States government or any other government to take any sort of position over Kyoto.”
Exxon, officially the US’s most valuable company valued at $379bn (£206bn) earlier this year, is seen in the papers to share the White House’s unwavering scepticism of international efforts to address climate change.
The documents, which reflect unanimity between the company and the US administration on the need for more global warming science and the unacceptable costs of Kyoto, state that Exxon believes that joining Kyoto “would be unjustifiably drastic and premature”.
This line has been taken consistently by President Bush, and was expected to be continued in yesterday’s talks with Tony Blair who has said that climate change is “the most pressing issue facing mankind”.
“President Bush tells Mr Blair he’s concerned about climate change, but these documents reveal the alarming truth, that policy in this White House is being written by the world’s most powerful oil company. This administration’s climate policy is a menace to humanity,” said Stephen Tindale, Greenpeace’s executive director in London last night.
“The prime minister needs to tell Mr Bush he’s calling in some favours. Only by securing mandatory cuts in US emissions can Blair live up to his rhetoric,” said Mr Tindale.
In other meetings documented in the papers, Ms Dobriansky meets Don Pearlman, an international anti-Kyoto lobbyist who has been a paid adviser to the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments, both of which have followed the US line against Kyoto.
The purpose of the meeting with Mr Pearlman, who also represents the secretive anti-Kyoto Climate Council, which the administration says “works against most US government efforts to address climate change”, is said to be to “solicit [his] views as part of our dialogue with friends and allies”.
ExxonMobil, which was yesterday contacted by the Guardian in the US but did not return calls, is spending millions of pounds on an advertising campaign aimed at influencing politicians, opinion formers and business leaders in the UK and other pro-Kyoto countries in the weeks before the G8 meeting at Gleneagles.