Exxon: The Road Not Taken

Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, Exxon: The Road Not Taken. InsideClimate News, 16 September 2015. “After eight months of investigation, InsideClimate News presents this multi-part history of Exxon’s engagement with the emerging science of climate change. The story spans four decades, and is based on primary sources including internal company files dating back to the late 1970s, interviews with former company employees, and other evidence, much of which is being published here for the first time. It describes how Exxon conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and then, without revealing all that it had learned, worked at the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed.”

Update #1: Katherine Bagley, Environmental and Civil Rights Groups Urge Federal Probe of Exxon. “Nearly 50 diverse organizations, ranging from green groups to indigenous people’s networks, call for an inquiry into what Exxon knew about climate change.” Inside Climate News, 30 October 2015. “A coalition of nearly 50 environmental, civil rights and indigenous people’s groups sent a letter Friday to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch urging her to launch a federal investigation into whether ExxonMobil purposefully misled the American people on climate change. The organizations cite reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that shows Exxon ‘knew about the dangers of climate change even as it funded efforts at climate denial and systematically misled the public,’ the letter said. ‘Given the damage that has already occurred from climate change—particularly in the poorest communities of our nation and our planet—and that will certainly occur going forward, these revelations should be viewed with the utmost apprehension.'”

Update #2: Justin Gillis and Clifford Krauss, Exxon Mobil Investigated for Possible Climate Change Lies by New York Attorney General. The New York Times, 5 November 2015. “The New York attorney general has begun a sweeping investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how those risks might hurt the oil business.”

Update #3: Neela Banerjee, Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too. InsideClimate News, 22 December 2015. “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.

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.”

See also:

Bill McKibben, What Exxon Knew About Climate Change. The New Yorker, 18 September 2015.

Naomi Oreskes, Exxon’s Climate Concealment. The New York Times, 9 October 2015. “Millions of Americans once wanted to smoke. Then they came to understand how deadly tobacco products were. Tragically, that understanding was long delayed because the tobacco industry worked for decades to hide the truth, promoting a message of scientific uncertainty instead. The same thing has happened with climate change, as Inside Climate News, a nonprofit news organization, has been reporting in a series of articles based on internal documents from Exxon Mobil dating from the 1970s and interviews with former company scientists and employees. Had Exxon been upfront at the time about the dangers of the greenhouse gases we were spewing into the atmosphere, we might have begun decades ago to develop a less carbon-intensive energy path to avert the worst impacts of a changing climate. Amazingly, politicians are still debating the reality of this threat, thanks in no small part to industry disinformation….”

Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch and Susanne Rust, Global Warming and Big Oil: What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic. Los Angeles Times, 9 October 2015.

Kate Jennings, Dino Grandoni and Susanne Rust, Exxon’s Sudden Shift: How Exxon went from leader to skeptic on climate change research. Los Angeles Times, 23 October 2015.

Neela Banerjee, How We Got the Exxon Story: The story behind what led us to investigate what ExxonMobil knew about climate change science and when.” InsideClimate News, 10 November 2015.

Democracy Now!, Exxon’s Climate Cover-Up Just Got Bigger: Docs Suggest All Major Oil Giants Have Lied Since 1970s. 31 December 2015. “2015, the hottest on record, was also the year ExxonMobil was caught in a more than three-decade lie. Internal documents revealed Exxon knew that fossil fuels cause global warming in the 1970s, but hid that information from the public. Now it turns out that Exxon isn’t alone. A new exposé from InsideClimate News reveals nearly every major U.S. and multinational oil and gas company was likely aware of the impact of fossil fuels on climate change at the same time as Exxon. We are joined by Neela Banerjee, the InsideClimate News reporter who broke this story.”

Part I of VI: Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago. “Top executives were warned of possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect, then led efforts to block solutions.” InsideClimate News, 16 September 2015.

At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters [in July 1977], 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….

A year later [1978], 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….

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….

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.”…

“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….

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 [tanker working on a project to measure the carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and atmosphere; the project ran from 1979 to 1982].

Part II of VI: Exxon Believed Deep Dive Into Climate Research Would Protect Its Business. “Outfitting its biggest supertanker to measure the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide was a crown jewel in Exxon’s research program.” InsideClimate News, 21 September 2015.

Exxon documents show that top corporate managers were aware of their scientists’ early conclusions about carbon dioxide’s impact on the climate. They reveal that scientists warned management that policy changes to address climate change might affect profitability. After a decade of frank internal discussions on global warming and conducting unbiased studies on it, Exxon changed direction in 1989 and spent more than 20 years discrediting the research its own scientists had once confirmed….

“A lively sense of urgency,” is what the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) called for in a 1977 report that contained a comprehensive survey of what was understood about global warming at that time.

The NAS report said that it would be understandable if the uncertainties of climate science elicited a cautious response from researchers and policymakers. But “if the decision is postponed until the impact of man-made climate changes has been felt, then, for all practical purposes, the die will already have been cast,” it concluded.

[Henry] Shaw [an Exxon scientist] heard these conclusions in October 1977 at a meeting in Atlanta organized by scientists and officials from the Carter administration who had formed a “study group on global environmental effects of carbon dioxide,” he told Exxon colleagues in a memo two weeks later.

The NAS report had concluded that the climatic effects of rising carbon dioxide “may be the primary limiting factor on energy production from fossil fuels over the next few centuries,” Shaw wrote, quoting the report’s central conclusion almost verbatim….

[In the late 1970s], two major uncertainties plagued climate science: how much of the CO2 in the air came from fossil fuels as opposed to deforestation? And how quickly could the oceans absorb atmospheric CO2?…

To nudge greater innovation, [Exxon’s chairman Clifton] Garvin hired Edward E. David, Jr. in 1977 to run Exxon Research….

At Exxon, David opened the door wide to studying carbon dioxide.

In a letter to David and 14 other Exxon Research executives in December 1978, Shaw spelled out why Exxon should take on carbon dioxide research—specifically, with the ambitious ocean-sampling initiative.

“The rationale for Exxon’s involvement and commitment of funds and personnel is based on our need to assess the possible impact of the greenhouse effect on Exxon business,” Shaw wrote. “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….

As Exxon worked to reduce the uncertainties of climate science, its employees developed a sophisticated understanding of the potential effects of rising CO2 concentrations, documents show. They understood that the Earth’s poles would warm more quickly than the rest of the planet, and how a reduction in ice and snow cover would change the planet’s ability to reflect sunlight.

They also discussed among themselves and with corporate executives other potential effects of climate change, including an increase in weeds, pests, and human migration, the documents show.

Some of the company’s highest-ranking executives were told of the studies and of estimates about when the impact of global warming might be felt.

Part III of VI: Exxon Confirmed Global Warming Consensus in 1982 with In-House Climate Models. “The company chairman would later mock climate models as unreliable while he campaigned to stop global action to reduce fossil fuel emissions.” InsideClimate News, 22 September 2015.

Steve Knisely was an intern at Exxon Research and Engineering in the summer of 1979….

Knisely projected that unless fossil fuel use was constrained, there would be “noticeable temperature changes” and 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air by 2010, up from about 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution. The summer intern’s predictions turned out to be very close to the mark.

Knisely even concluded that the fossil fuel industry might need to leave 80 percent of its recoverable reserves in the ground to avoid doubling CO2 concentrations, a notion now known as the carbon budget. In 2013, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change formally endorsed the idea….

Through much of the 1980s, Exxon researchers worked alongside university and government scientists to generate objective climate models that yielded papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Their work confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming’s risks.

Yet starting in 1989, Exxon leaders went down a different road. They repeatedly argued that the uncertainty inherent in computer models makes them useless for important policy decisions. Even as the models grew more powerful and reliable, Exxon publicly derided the type of work its own scientists had done. The company continued its involvement with climate research, but its reputation for objectivity began to erode as it campaigned internationally to cast doubt on the science….

By 1981, Exxon scientists were no longer questioning whether the buildup of CO2 would cause the world to heat up. Through their own studies and their participation in government-sponsored conferences, company researchers had concluded that rising CO2 levels could create catastrophic impacts within the first half of the 21st century if the burning of oil, gas and coal wasn’t contained….

As the researchers alerted Exxon’s upper management about the CO2 problem, the scientists worked to provide better estimates of when the warming trend would create noticeable damage, and how large the impacts might be….

“Over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged regarding the expected climatic effects of increased atmospheric CO2,” [Exxon manager Roger Cohen, director of the Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory at Exxon Research]… wrote to A.M. Natkin of Exxon Corporation’s Science and Technology Office in 1982. “The consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5)°C.” (Equal to 5.4 ± 2.7°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, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”…

The conclusions of Exxon’s climate modeling were being circulated broadly within the company in the 1980s….

[Since 1990 climate] modeling has become an increasingly useful and reliable tool. The IPCC, the United Nations institution that compiles the scientific consensus on global warming, has issued a series of reports since 1990 based on those models. Each report has grown more certain. By the fifth report in 2013, the IPCC said it was “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

As the consensus grew within the scientific world, Exxon doubled down on the uncertainty. Its campaign to muddy research results placed the company outside the scientific mainstream.

Part IV of VI: Exxon’s Business Ambition Collided with Climate Change Under a Distant Sea. InsideClimate News, 8 October 2015. “Throughout the 1980s, the company struggled to solve the carbon problem of one of the biggest gas fields in the world out of concern for climate impacts.”

In 1980, as Exxon Corp. set out to develop one of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas, it found itself facing an unfamiliar risk: the project would emit immense amounts of carbon dioxide, adding to the looming threat of climate change.

The problem cropped up shortly after Exxon signed a contract with the Indonesian state oil company to exploit the Natuna gas field in the South China Sea—big enough to supply the blossoming markets of Japan, Taiwan and Korea with liquefied natural gas into the 21st century….

Exxon’s dawning realization that carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect posed a danger to the world collided with the company’s fossil fuel ambitions….

Since 1978, long before the general public grew aware of the climate crisis, Exxon had worked at the cutting edge of emerging climate science. At first, Exxon’s internal studies had described climate change as an important but somewhat distant problem. Now, sooner than expected, climate considerations were affecting strategic business decisions. Natuna was one example; another was Exxon’s proposed leap into synthetic fuels….

Documents and other evidence uncovered by InsideClimate News also show that Exxon calculated that Natuna’s emissions would have twice the climate impact of coal. The company spent years researching possible remedies, but found them all too costly or ineffective, ICN’s eight-month investigation found….

Study after study returned Exxon back to square one with Natuna: it held the rights to an enormously promising field but was unable to develop it because it was unwilling to pump so much CO2 into the air….

Exxon continued to investigate possibilities for responsibly disposing of Natuna’s CO2. The project remains dormant, but Exxon [has not given] up. After an on-and-off relationship with Indonesia, the company still holds the license, which is up for renewal next summer.

Part V of VI: Highlighting the Allure of Synfuels, Exxon Played Down the Climate Risks. InsideClimate News, 8 October 2015. “In the 1980s, Exxon lobbied to replace scarce oil with synthetic fossil fuels, but it glossed over the high carbon footprint associated with synfuels.”

Early in the 1980s, the lingering fear of oil scarcity and the emerging threat of climate change were beginning to intersect. And at that junction stood Exxon Corp., working out its strategy for survival in the uncertain 21st century.

At the time, Exxon believed oil supplies could not keep up with demand, so it put its weight behind a crusade to develop synthetic fossil fuels as a costly and carbon intensive, but potentially profitable alternative. It could liquefy the vast deposits of coal, oil shale and tar sands that were readily available in North America. This would be the new black gold, supplying as much as a third of the energy the United States would use in the early 21st century, company executives estimated….

Company documents discovered during an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News show that Exxon Research & Engineering estimated that producing and burning oil shales would release 1.4 to 3 times more carbon dioxide than conventional oil, and would accelerate the doubling of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by about five years. The company knew that a doubling would risk about 3 degrees Celsius of warming, or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit….

As in so many other realms of its research, Exxon studied a potential future of synthetic fuels while recognizing that carbon dioxide could be a powerful factor in its business decisions for decades to come.

Part VI of VI: Exxon Sowed Doubt About Climate Science for Decades by Stressing Uncertainty. InsideClimate News, 22 October 2015. “Collaborating with the Bush-Cheney White House, Exxon turned ordinary scientific uncertainties into weapons of mass confusion.”

[I]n the opening days of the oil-friendly Bush-Cheney administration [2001],… Exxon wanted scientists who disputed the mainstream science on climate change to oversee Washington’s work with the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], the authoritative body that defines the scientific consensus on global warming, documents written by an Exxon lobbyist and one of its scientists show. The company 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….

[Exxon’s campaign to undermine ‘mainstream science and embrace…denial and misinformation’] became most pronounced after President George W. Bush took office [in 2001]. 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….

As the Bush-Cheney administration arrived in the White House in 2001, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) now had partners for a climate uncertainty strategy….

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….

In 1988, [NASA climate scientist] 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….

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….

… Exxon’s…chairman and chief executive, Lee Raymond,…spoke of [uncertainty] 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.”…

[Exxon] set up the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying partnership [1989-2002] of leading oil and automobile companies dedicated to defeating controls on carbon pollution….

“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 [an] article [on corporate responsibility for climate change published in July 2015 in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Change] by Harvard climate science historian Naomi Oreskes and two co-authors….

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….

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.”