Like Exxon, Utilities Knew about Climate Change Risks Decades Ago: A new report shows through documents and testimony how utilities researched climate change and determined in the 1970s that it could force a shift away from coal.

Update – 27 August 2017 – ExxonMobil Lied About Climate Change For 40 Years — New Study, August 27th, 2017 by , 

The Attorneys General for the states of New York and Massachusetts are on a mission. They seek to prove in court that ExxonMobil has consistently lied about what it knew about the relationship between burning the fossil fuels it supplies to world markets and climate change. The company is furiously defending itself in court, claiming the two top state lawyers are on a witch hunt designed solely to boost their chances of getting re-elected. But they have persisted and have won a few opening skirmishes in the courts.

ExxonMobil refinery at dusk (

Study Examines Internal & External Communications

Their work may get a boost from a new study by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes published by IOP Science on August 23, 2017. While the lawyers are seeking access to tens of thousands of company documents created over the past 40 years, the researchers examined 187 public and private communications from the company that are available. They say they have found significant discrepancies between the way the energy giant talked about climate change internally and what it told the public. Approximately 80% of the documents prepared solely for internal use acknowledged that climate change was “real and human caused,” but only 12% of public statements, including advertising, suggested that climate change was a cause for concern.

“We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science — by way of its scientists’ academic publications — but promoted doubt about it in advertorials,” Supran and Oreskes write. “Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public.” 

What Did ExxonMobil Know & When Did They Know It?

The authors point to a 1979 internal Exxon document entitled “Controlling Atmospheric CO2,” which states that the increase in carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere “is due to fossil fuel combustion” and that “the present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the years 2050.”

Yet 30 years later, ExxonMobil claimed in an advertorial published in the New York Times that “Climate change is complex, the science is not conclusive, the economics could be devastating.” Supran and Oreskes state, “ExxonMobil … overwhelmingly emphasized only the uncertainties. It [promoted] a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil’s own.”

The company, which was led for many years by current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has reacted angrily to the report. It claims the findings are “inaccurate and preposterous.” The authors have contrived to create a so-called report that was “paid for, written and published by activists leading a five-year campaign against [them].”

“Rather than pursuing solutions to address the risk of climate change, these activists, along with trial lawyers, have acknowledged a goal of extracting money from our shareholders and attacking the company’s reputation,” the company said in a statement. “ExxonMobil acknowledges the risk of climate change is clear and warrants action.”

Were Investors Deceived?

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says, “Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change should be held accountable.” Part of the investigation she and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are conducting focuses on whether the company deliberately misled its shareholders in order to maintain the price of its shares. The compensation for most major business leaders today is based upon the value of company stock, giving them a powerful incentive to use any method fair or foul to keep the market value of company stock as high as possible. The Securities and Exchange Commission is also investigating ExxonMobil for the same reason.

When Rex Tillerson was still Exxon’s CEO, he had a private email account under the pseudonym “Wayne Tracker,” a fact that only became known as the result of pretrial discovery. Exxon claimed the alias account was only created because Tillerson’s general inbox was overloaded. Attorney General Schneiderman says the company had failed to disclose who the email account belonged to until his office forced it to do so. He is asking the court to order Exxon to turn over thousands of internal company documents, including the emails associated with that account.

Was ExxonMobil The Grandfather Of The Tesla Model S?

ExxonMobil was not always so belligerent in its stance on climate change. In the 1970s, after the OPEC oil embargoes, it created a research division based in New Jersey that focused on hybrid powertrains for passenger cars. That program, called ELVECS, was abruptly shut down in 1981 after a prototype was delivered to Toyota engineers in Japan. If anyone is looking for the “smoking gun” that proves ExxonMobil concocted a plan to hide what it knew about fossil fuels and climate change, they should focus their attention on that period and the decision to close the research program.

The ELVECS project may have been the spark of inspiration that led to the first Toyota Prius 16 years later. John Corcoran, one of the engineers involved in the program, drives a Prius today. He says, “We shouldn’t overstate Exxon’s role in hybrid vehicles in the long term, but if we planted any seed at all with anyone, it was that the electric motor in a hybrid could be an AC motor.”

Elon Musk and his crew at Tesla Motors took the AC electric motor idea and ran with it. Could ExxonMobil have been the grandfather, or at least the great uncle, of the Model S? When the courts have had their say and the dust settles, we may know the answer to that question.

Source: Think Progress

By John Cushman, Inside Climate News, 25 July 2017 

Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Electric Power Research Institute wrote publicly in 1988 about the growing consensus that the greenhouse effect is real. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A study issued Tuesday by an energy watchdog group offers important new insights into the fossil fuel industry’s extensive early understanding of climate change and the risks it poses.

This time, it’s the electric utility sector that’s under the microscope.

The detailed study, backed up by reams of archival documents, was issued by the Energy and Policy Institute, an environmental advocacy and research group that favors the use of clean energy over fossil fuels.

Forty years ago, the documents show, industry officials told Congress that the looming problem of climate change might require the world to back away from coal-fired power—something that is only now beginning to happen.

The research presents a distinct echo of an investigation of Exxon’s climate record published by InsideClimate News almost two years ago, and casts significant new light on the duration and depth of industry’s climate research—and how electric companies that use fossil fuels responded to the emerging science from the 1960’s onward.

The 66-page report unearths research documents and testimony published but then largely forgotten decades before the climate crisis emerged as a key public issue.

And in this episode of the nation’s climate history, once again, the same industry that foresaw the ultimate end of coal as a main fuel for power generation later supported actions to cast doubt on the science and to stave off policies to address the problem, funding groups that deny the scientific consensus and joining the main industry group that opposed participation in the first climate treaty. To this day, there are few federal limits on emissions of carbon dioxide by utilities, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases.

“It’s a story with striking parallels to the investigations into ExxonMobil’s early knowledge of climate change and later efforts to deceive investors, policymakers and the public on the issue,” EPI said.

Asked for comment, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, one of the trade associations scrutinized in the report, said only that the industry has made deep reductions in its emissions of carbon dioxide since 2005.

Dave Anderson, one of the authors, said that the report might “provide fodder” to those such as state attorneys general or private plaintiffstaking legal steps to force the industry to more fully describe the risks of climate change to shareholders, or even to compensate for damages that ensued from emissions.

By 1988, the EPI report said, the Electric Power Research Institute, supported by the industry, acknowledged “a growing consensus in the scientific community that the greenhouse effect is real.”

Even so, EPI said, some in the industry joined oil and other industries in the climate-denial front group known as the Global Climate Coalition, which lobbied successfully to get the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol during the George W. Bush administration.

It is striking that specialists in the industry understood the risks of climate change early enough to expand research efforts into the problem substantially in the 1970’s, about the same time Exxon launched cutting-edge research on its own.

The new report resurfaces many detailed documents, some of them previously mentioned by InsideClimate in its Exxon reporting, others not widely circulated in recent years.

The 1960’s, the earliest years of significant federal government interest of the looming carbon dioxide problem, especially during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, utilities were among the industries contributing to extensive government studies that raised the issue of climate change as an important consideration. Mostly, they recommended diligent research, since there was not yet quantitative evidence or sophisticated models of how continuing use of fossil fuels would impact the climate.

By 1977, the Electric Power Research Institute, funded by the industry, was testifying in Congress that the global warming consequences of greenhouse gases could force a shift away from fossil fuels, especially coal, a message that the group repeated in its house publication that year. (At about that time, the National Academy of Sciences was first warning that climate change, not resource scarcity, was likely to limit the use of fossil fuel in the decades ahead.)

By 1988, the EPRI Journal would run an editorial declaring outright: “There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that the greenhouse effect is real.” It described potentially grave impacts, but added that “shifting away from fossil fuel use is a prospect that seems impractical.”

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