The American Petroleum Institute together with the nation’s largest oil companies ran a task force to monitor and share climate research between 1979 and 1983, indicating that the oil industry, not just Exxon alone, was aware of its possible impact on the world’s climate far earlier than previously known. The group’s members included senior scientists and engineers from nearly every major U.S. and multinational oil and gas company, including Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio as well as Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil, the predecessors to Chevron, according to internal documents obtained by InsideClimate News and interviews with the task force’s former director, James J. Nelson. “It was a fact-finding task force,” Nelson said in an interview. “We wanted to look at emerging science, the implications of it and where improvements could be made, if possible, to reduce emissions.”
An InsideClimate News investigative series has shown that Exxon launched its own cutting-edge CO2 sampling program in 1978 in order to understand a phenomenon it suspected could harm its business. About a decade later, Exxon spearheaded campaigns to cast doubt on climate science and stall regulation of greenhouse gases. The previously unpublished papers about the climate task force indicate that API, the industry’s most powerful lobbying group, followed a similar arc to Exxon’s in confronting the threat of climate change. In addition, API task force members appeared open to the idea that the oil industry might have to shoulder some responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions by changing refining processes and developing fuels that emitted less carbon dioxide.
The minutes also show that the task force discussed a “potential area” for research and development that called for it to “‘Investigate the Market Penetration Requirements of Introducing a New Energy Source into World Wide Use.’ This would include the technical implications of energy source changeover, research timing and requirements.”
Yet by the 1990s, it was clear that API had opted for a markedly different approach to the threat of climate change. It joined Exxon, other fossil fuel companies and major manufacturers in the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group whose objective was to derail international efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions. In 1998, a year after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by countries to cut fossil fuel emissions, API crafted a campaign to convince the American public and lawmakers that climate science was too tenuous for the United States to ratify the treaty.
“Unless ‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts,” according to the draft Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan circulated by API.
API and GCC were victorious when George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto agreement. A June 2001 briefing memorandum records a top State Department official thanking the GCC because Bush “rejected the Kyoto Protocol in part, based on input from you.” Ultimately API “took the environmental unit and put it into the political department, which was primarily lobbyists,” Nelson said. “They weren’t focused on doing research or on improving the oil industry’s impact on pollution. They were less interested in pushing the envelope of science and more interested in how to make it more advantageous politically or economically for the oil industry. That’s not meant as a criticism. It’s just a fact of life.”
Raymond J. Campion, a scientist at Exxon Research and Engineering and a member of the task force noted “Bill Slick’s need for information on atmospheric CO2 buildup as a potential emerging issue for API to consider.” Campion referenced a AAAS report eventually published in October 1980 that offered more sobering forecasts than Campion had expected, describing risks to nearly every facet of life on Earth and concluding catastrophes could be avoided only if timely steps were taken to address climate change. A memo from Campion to colleague J.T. Burgess dated Sept. 6, 1979 showed that the task force moved quickly to draft a background paper about CO2. Campion wrote that he was asked to critique it for Slick to use in API discussions.
Campion suggested corrections to the background paper’s quantification of the rate of CO2 build-up, as well as an estimate in the paper that the “warming of the atmosphere…may be noticeable within the next twenty years.”
He estimated that the effects would be felt after 2000, after a cyclical cooling period had passed. Because a cyclical warming trend was then expected post 2000, it would intensify climate change, “worsening the effect,” he wrote. It is not known if the corrections were made to the paper.
“The individuals I had on the task force were very, very technically and ethically moral,” Nelson said. “They felt that their job for their company was to look at an issue and if there was a problem, or if the petroleum industry was part of it or could contribute to fixing the problem, they wanted to do that.”
Nelson organized the monthly meetings, took minutes and disseminated information companies wanted to share. Documents show representatives of about a half-dozen companies at various meetings. The meeting sites rotated among the members’ cities, including oil hubs such as Houston and Tulsa; Washington, where API is located; and New York, where Exxon was headquartered at the time.
As Campion had recommended, API did not conduct its own research. But some of its members did, and they were generous about sharing their work and insights, Nelson said.
At Shaw’s urging, the task force invited Professor John A. Laurmann of Stanford University to brief members about climate science at the February 1980 meeting in New York. Shaw and Laurmann had participated in the same panel at the AAAS climate conference in April 1979.
Laurmann told his audience several times that the evidence showed that the increase in atmospheric CO2 is likely “caused by anthropogenic release of CO2, mainly from fossil fuel burning.”
In his conclusions section, Laurmann estimated that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would double in 2038, which he said would likely lead to a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise in global average temperatures with “major economic consequences.” He then told the task force that models showed a 5 degrees Celsius rise by 2067, with “globally catastrophic effects.”
Nelson said he watched developments over the years. “That was the driving force, a worry about excessive regulation, my impression from having watched it along the way,” he said.
Charles DiBona served as president of API from 1979 to 1997, when the organization shifted its approach on climate change from following the science to intense lobbying to discredit it and said via interview that he did not remember the task force. In the 1990s, API argued that the science was too weak to warrant action, even as research grew more certain about the link between fossil fuel use, greater CO2 concentrations and rising global temperatures. Exxon chief executive Lee Raymond was API chairman from 1996 to 1997, when he focused on the uncertainty. The GCC emphasized the issue, too, in its public statements.
“Many people, politicians and the public alike, believe that global warming is a rock-solid certainty,” Raymond said in a 1997 speech in Beijing. “But it’s not.”
API organized industry resistance to the possibility of the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases in 1999. When the Bush administration took office, former API lobbyist Philip A. Cooney became chief of staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, the White House office that drove climate policy. Government scientists accused Cooney of rewriting federal research reports to sow doubt about man-made climate change. Cooney resigned in 2005 and went to work for ExxonMobil.
API’s current position is that “fossil fuel development and environmental progress are not mutually exclusive,” according to Jack Gerard, the group’s president. But API still rejects any federal mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Gerard decried President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from the country’s power plants, the cornerstone of the administration’s climate agenda, as destructive “government interference” in free markets.