July 8, 2015

Former Exxon Employee Says Company Considered Climate Risks as Early as 1981

New Report Finds that Despite Decades of Scientific Warnings, Fossil Fuel Companies Continued to Mislead Public, Policymakers

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (July 8, 2015)—Exxon employees considered how climate change should factor into decisions about new fossil fuel extraction as early as 1981, according to a former employee’s email the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reviewed while researching a new report on fossil energy company lobbying campaigns.

Yet as the new report, The Climate Deception Dossiers, chronicles, Exxon and other major fossil fuel companies did not take action to disclose or reduce climate risks in the ensuing years, but instead actively misled the public and policymakers about them.

The new report reviews internal documents related to some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, including BP, Chevron, Conoco, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, Phillips, and Shell, spanning the course of 27 years—memos that have either been leaked to the public, come to light through lawsuits, or been disclosed through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The documents show that:

  • Companies have directly or indirectly spread climate disinformation for decades;
  • Corporate leaders knew the realities of climate science—that their products were harmful to people and the planet—but still actively deceived the public and denied this harm;
  • The campaign of deception continues, with some of the documents having surfaced as recently as in 2014 and 2015.

UCS has made the complete collection of 85 internal memos—totaling more than 330 pages—available online.

In the email, the employee explains that, “Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia.” He said the company knew the field was rich in carbon dioxide and that it could become the “largest point source of CO2 in the world,” accounting for 1 percent of projected global CO2 emissions.

It is not clear that any other companies were considering the climate effects of projects at such an early time.

Despite these internal deliberations as well as warnings from scientists, the report finds that company lobbyists continued to fight climate rules and spread misinformation about climate science. In 1995, the same former employee helped author one of the key documents highlighted in the report when he later worked for Mobil: a memo sent to the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a fossil fuel lobbying group. The memo, which was distributed to representatives from member companies, warned unequivocally twenty years agothat burning the companies’ products was causing climate change and that the relevant science “is well established and cannot be denied.”

Writing in 2014, the former employee, who also served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, lamented that he was unsuccessful in “trying to get them to recognize scientific reality.”

The email was sent in response to an inquiry from Ohio University’s Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics about how companies often fail to account for “un-priced externalities,” such as climate change. It was first published online (see item 3) in October of 2014, but has not received any outside notice until now.

UCS president Ken Kimmell, a former attorney and head of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, wrote in a blog post about the report that companies missed an opportunity to lead on climate change.

“Many fossil fuel companies haven’t been honest about the harms they have caused by extracting and selling products that place our climate in grave danger,” he wrote. “Instead of taking responsibility, they have either directly—or indirectly through trade and industry groups—sown doubt about the science of climate change and fought efforts to cut emissions.”

Indeed many of those same companies – including BP, Chevron, Conoco, Exxon, Mobil, Phillips, and Shell – were members of the American Petroleum Institute (API) in 1998 when the trade group drafted a plan to secretly support “independent” researchers who would publicly dispute established climate science. The trade group’s memo claimed that “victory” would be achieved when “average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science.”

As the UCS report chronicles, member companies continued to implement API’s plans even after they were exposed. For instance, freedom of information requests from Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center yielded documents earlier this year that showed how API, ExxonMobil and Southern Company, a utility, continued to fund at least one contrarian researcher – aerospace engineer Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon – for more than a decade through grants to the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian responded to these revelations by promising to revisit policies governing outside research funding.

Other documents in the report highlight deceptive strategies fossil fuel companies have used to undermine climate policy, including forging documents and funding California groups that purport to advocate on behalf of drivers and taxpayers rather than oil companies.

The report’s release comes at a time of increased scrutiny on major fossil fuel companies. In response to shareholder pressure, Shell and BP have called for placing a price on carbon and supported resolutions that would require the companies to reexamine their business models to account for climate policy and to embrace greater transparency on climate lobbying. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil continues to reject such resolutions. At a May shareholder meeting, CEO Rex Tillerson also publicly criticized climate models and suggested that humans will simply adapt to climate change.

Fossil fuel companies’ support for trade and advocacy groups that dispute and distort climate science has also come under fire. UCS and ShareAction recently called on Shell to follow BP’s lead in leaving the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group highlighted in the report that routinely disseminates misinformation about climate science and policy to state legislators.

The UCS report calls on companies to stop supporting campaigns that spread misinformation about climate science and to end efforts to undermine climate policy. Nancy Cole, a report author and UCS’s campaign director for climate and energy, said companies should find more constructive paths forward.

“These companies aren’t just trying to block new polices, they’re trying to roll back clean energy and climate laws that are working and are widely supported by the public,” she said. “Climate change is already underway – and many communities are struggling to protect their residents and prepare for future changes. The deception simply must stop. It’s time for major carbon companies to become part of the solution.”

All the documents associated with the report are available online, along with a slideshow and related video.

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.