ExxonMobil misleads public on climate change for decades…should we care?

ExxonExxon dragged through public mud for decades-old climate denying, current climate change efforts ignored

Is pursuing ExxonMobil for climate denying sins dating back to the 1970s a constructive contribution to the climate change/energy transition debate? Should former venal acts overshadow the climate-positive work in which the company is now engaged? And is there a danger in demonizing energy companies we need to help effectively and efficiently manage the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy technologies?

Geoffrey Supran, Harvard post-doc fellow.

Geoffry Supran, co-author of a new study in the IOP Science journal about the oil giant’s public advertising and comments about climate science, says his work demonstrates that Exxon was for decades talking out of both sides of its mouth, quietly supporting the science while publicly denying it in paid advertisements.

Exxon has always rejected allegations it suppressed climate change research over the past 40 years. “We understand that climate risks are real. The company has continuously, publicly and openly researched and discussed the risks of climate change, carbon life cycle analysis and emissions reductions,” the company said, as quoted in the study.

The Harvard postdoctoral fellow (history of science department) and his colleagues argue that not hiding the science isn’t the point: “The issue at stake is whether the corporation misled consumers, shareholders and/or the general public by making public statements that cast doubt on climate science and its implications, and which were at odds with available scientific information and with what the company knew.”

The researchers reviewed paid, editorial-style advertisements known as “advertorials” that were published on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times from 1977 to 2004. They also examined the peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications (academic papers, conference proceedings, reports, company pamphlets, etc) and internal documents made available by Exxon.

“We found that, for example, roughly 80 per cent of Exxon’s peer-reviewed and internal memos acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused,” Supran said in an interview.

“We found that essentially the same fraction of Exxon’s advertorials, it was 81 per cent, promoted doubt on the same matter. And we found similar trends in terms of how the company discussed climate change as serious and solvable.”

exxonSupran provided the following example of Exxon’s behaviour.

In 1996, an Exxon climate scientist co-author the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concluded the statistical evidence points toward the “discernible human influence” on the global climate. The next year, an Exxon advertorial that said, “Scientists cannot predict with certainty that temperatures will increase by how much and where changes will occur. We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.”

But that example is 20 years old and Exxon is singing a different tune now. Are the lessons of the past still relevant for the present?

“Our analysis shows that Exxon has a track record of sending mixed messages about climate change. And as you allude to, today the rhetoric has evolved, but we see the same patterns existing,” says Supran.

“For example, Exxon and other fossil fuel companies say they acknowledge climate science and support the Paris Climate Agreement, but they also continue to double down on a business model that is incompatible with the science of stopping climate change.”

Well, ok, but the International Energy Agency is forecasting strong growth in demand for crude oil until at least 2040. We can hardly expect Exxon to fall on its sword tomorrow if there is still decades of of relevance for that business model.

As noted energy scholar Vaclav Smil is fond of pointing out, energy revolutions occur at a crawl.

While our recently started (my guess is it began in 2000) energy transition is gathering steam, super-majors like Exxon are doing what 196 countries agreed to in 2015: decarbonizing the existing energy system as efficiently and as quickly as possible, while at the same time developing and promoting the adoption of clean energy technologies.

Worker with methane emissions detector.

For instance, Exxon just announced a new program to reduce fugitive methane emissions from the operations of subsidiary XTO. This important because methane is 25 to 80 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. And government around the world – including Alberta, British Columbia, and Canada – are busy devising regulations to reduce them by 40 per cent or more by 2025.

“We are implementing an enhanced leak detection and repair program across our production and midstream sites to continually reduce methane emissions, and are also evaluating opportunities to upgrade facilities and improve efficiency at both current and future sites,” said Sara Ortwein, president of XTO, which extracts natural gas around the world.

“Our comprehensive initiative is underscored by a technology research and testing effort, and includes personnel training, equipment phase out and facility design improvements.”

The company also participated in scientific studies with a variety of universities, government departments, and even environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund.

That’s on the decarbonization side of things. What about new clean energy tech?

Exxon says it has spent about $1 billion a year over the past decade on research and technology development, partnering with 80 universities around the world.

Technologies the company has invested in include power plant carbon dioxide capture using fuel cells,

The point of my argument is not to excuse Exxon’s past errors of judgement by pointing to good work it’s doing in the present. A coalition of American state governments are investigating the company for misleading investors, among other alleged crimes, and if charged and found guilty, Exxon should be appropriately punished.

Rather, my point is that looking forward is the far more urgent requirement. Managing the energy transition now is a great deal more important than litigating decades-old climate politics grievances.

Let’s wrap up the legal investigations, tie a knot in the bow, and move to the more pressing business at hand.

Since that business will inevitably require the energy giants like Exxon, less demonizing and more strategizing should be the order of the day.

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