I was taking a little vacation time when InsideClimate News began publishing the fruits of its eight-month investigation into ExxonMobil’s role in global warming research, and a glance at the headlines made it easy to lay these stories aside for later.
Having written for 20 years or so about the oil behemoth’s cynical, self-interested and often covert efforts to sow scientific doubt and stall regulation of fossil-fuel emissions, I frankly wondered:
What new can possibly be said? Even by ICN, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Kalamazoo oil spill from a failed pipeline carrying tar-sands crude?
Wrong. There is indeed a fresh and important story being told about ExxonMobil’s corporate conduct, still unfolding as the Los Angeles Times and others add their own reporting to ICN’s. And against this backdrop the calls for congressional or even criminal investigation must be considered at least plausible.
The familiar chapters of the ExxonMobil story begin around 1990, as discussion of heat-trapping gases and the greenhouse effect was beginning to move from specialized publications to mainstream media.
As ICN reported on Thursday, Exxon’s top research manager, Brian Flannery, was carefully tracking the work of the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its warnings that, despite some uncertainties, the risks of global warming were real and the need for emission reductions was urgent.
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….
None of which would be surprising if the company’s researchers hadn’t spent the previous 23 years on cutting-edge research that helped define the very consensus that Exxon now found inconvenient.
That untold story is the focus of the ICN project, and it begins in July of 1977, “well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis,” with a narrative I’ll compress lightly here:
A sobering, early warning
At a meeting in Exxon’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.
“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.
A year later, Black 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. “Present thinking 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.”
An especially powerful chapter of this history concerns the company’s decision to investigate one of the most important uncertainties in climate modeling – the ocean’s ability to capture and store atmospheric carbon – by “installing a state-of-the-art lab aboard the Esso Atlantic, one of the biggest supertankers of the time.”
Exxon recruited two outside experts from Columbia University, Taro Takahashi and Wallace Broecker, and guaranteed them complete freedom to publish their results – even if they conflicted with the company’s business interests.
Exxon planned to gather atmospheric and oceanic CO2 samples along the Esso Atlantic’s route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf. If the sensors revealed a deep enough oceanic sink, or absorption, the fossil fuel industry might have more time before it had to make tough decisions about its role in warming the planet.
“We couldn’t account for everything because the exchanges between the atmosphere and the oceans weren’t fully understood,” Edward Garvey, Shaw’s main researcher on the tanker project, said in an interview. “Our goal was to complete the carbon cycle to understand where global carbon production would end up and then make forecasts of how the system would react in the future.”
The Esso Atlantic was launched on its new mission in August 1979 and canceled in 1982, when the company lost its bid for federal funds to help support the research, but not before yielding some important discoveries.
Takahashi later co-authored a study in 1990 partially based on the tanker data that said land-based ecosystems—boreal forests, for example—absorbed more atmospheric CO2 than the oceans. He used Exxon’s tanker records again in 2009, in an updated study that compiled 30 years of oceanic CO2 data from dozens of reports.
This time, his team concluded the oceans absorb only about 20 percent of the CO2 emitted annually from fossil fuels and other human activities. The paper earned Takahashi a “Champions of the Earth” prize from the United Nations.
Although ExxonMobil has generally declined to comment on ICN’s specific findings, it made an exception to state that the Esso Atlantic project “was actually aimed at increasing understanding of the marine carbon cycle – it had nothing to do with CO2 emissions.” However, ICN found that claim to be contradicted by the company’s own documents, many of which are archived at the University of Texas, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A culture of boldness
In climate modeling, in calculating the climate impacts of coal-based synfuels, in quantifying the potential CO2 releases from undersea natural-gas fields, ICN shows, the company’s research advanced scientific understanding at some risk to its own business model. But former employees
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.
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.”
While documenting a clear shift in Exxon Research’s aims, achievements and stature, ICN pretty much leaves it to the reader to attribute motives for the change. For its part, the company essentially denies that any meaningful change has occurred.
Writing recently in ExxonMobil Perspectives, PR exec Ken Cohen said the company’s researchers “were among the first to grapple with the fact that there might be a connection between the carbon dioxide emissions from humanity’s use of fossil fuels and climate fluctuations,” and that “we have remained committed to pursuing climate change research since that initial discovery.”
As for claims that “evidence of our climate research was unearthed recently by ICN and the Los Angeles Times after being suppressed as part of a conspiracy to deny the existence of climate change,” he said, “nothing could be farther from the truth.”
The L.A. Times took a closer look at that issue in a piece published Friday. Based on a parallel review of documents and interviews with former employees, it concludes that Exxon “feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome policies.”
Brian Flannery, Exxon’s longtime in-house climate expert, outlined the threat in a note to his colleagues in an internal company newsletter in 1989. Government and regulatory efforts to reduce the risk of climate change, Flannery wrote, would “alter profoundly the strategic direction of the energy industry.” And he warned that the impact on the company from those efforts “will come sooner … than from climate change itself.”
If not criminal, then shameful
Exxon’s critics are drawing parallels between its conduct and the long campaign of Big Tobacco to deny the addictive and carcinogenic properties of tobacco, with two California congressmen (both Democrats) calling for a Justice Department investigation into whether the company’s actions might be prosecutable under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which seems like kind of a stretch to me.
But a former DOJ attorney who worked on the tobacco litigation told Climate Progress last week that a RICO prosecution is plausible if it can be shown that Exxon and other oil companies “worked together to suppress knowledge about the reality of human-caused climate change.”
Which brings me back to where I started this piece, I guess. The surprise in these new reports is not ExxonMobil’s self-interested PR stance on climate policy – it’s the long retreat from agenda-setting leadership role in climate science that could have lent far more focus and productive energy to framing an effective global response.
That’s a change of course that strikes me as shameful, if not necessarily criminal, and even quite profoundly sad.
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A note on the corporate names herein: The company now known as ExxonMobil was formed in the breakup of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and was known initially as Standard Oil of New Jersey, later as Esso and then Exxon. Its current name dates from its 1999 merger with Mobil Oil, formerly known as Standard Oil of New York and Socony.