Exxon Mobil lied about climate change for 40 years
The Attorneys General for the states of New York and Massachusetts are on a mission. They seek to prove in court that Exxon Mobil 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, 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.
By Steve Hanley
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 Exxon Mobil 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 Exxon Mobil misled the public.”
What Did Exxon Mobil 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, Exxon Mobil 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, “Exxon Mobil … overwhelmingly emphasized only the uncertainties. It [promoted] a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including Exxon Mobil’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 Exxon Mobil The Grandfather Of The Tesla Model S?
Exxon Mobil 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 Exxon Mobil 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 Exxon Mobil 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.