While evaluating the potential impact of developing a gas field it was interested in off Indonesia, ExxonMobil found one major reason for concern: the field in question was 70 percent carbon dioxide. If the field were developed, and that gas vented into the atmosphere, it could become the “largest point source of CO2 in the world,” accounting for a full one percent of climate change-causing emissions.
According to Leonard S. Bernstein, a former chemical engineer at the company, Exxon recognized the potential for global warming concerns to lead to regulations that would impact the project and others like it.
The year was 1981.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has brought to light Bernstein's claims, which he first made in an email posted online last October, as part of a new report. Called the Climate Deception Dossiers, it uses internal memos to trace the denial and deception practiced by Big Oil over the nearly three decades since 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that man-made global warming had begun. And if Bernstein is to believed, then Exxon, at least, knew about it years earlier.
"Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations," Bernstein wrote in the email. And while it did question some of the science being floated at the time, he added, "Exxon NEVER denied the potential for humans to impact the climate system."
We can consider that the start of a long-standing pattern. While none of the documents released by UCS are new, taken together they show that the world's oil giants -- ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Peabody Energy and Royal Dutch Shell -- have been fully aware of their contributions to climate change and the danger that can result, and has at the same time been spending tens of millions to convince the public that that's not at all the case.
In one more well-known example, experts wrote an internal report for an industry coalition acknowledging that the science of man-made climate change "is well established and cannot be denied.” Yet just three years later, the American Petroleum Institute drafted a strategy to sow misinformation: "Victory will be achieved,” a memo read, when “[a]verage citizens ’understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”
The end result of such public-facing climate denial, of course, has been to allow these companies to continue to pollute the atmosphere. And according to the UCS, more than half of all industrial CO2 emissions have been released since what should have been the watershed year of 1988:
All of this represents more than just shady business practices, argues UCS president Ken Kimmell in a blog post. With its chilling parallels to the strategies used by the tobacco industry to obscure the link between smoking and cancer, the oil industry's morally corrupt conduct over the past decades should be more than enough for us to revoke its "social license" -- there's no reason for the public, or the government, to assume Big Oil is acting in good faith.
And it's time, Kimmell contends, for the industry to start earning some of that trust back -- not just by ceasing to actively disinform the public and block regulations, but also by taking an active role in working toward solutions. Some have (kind of) started to get on board with that: BP dumped the notorious climate deniers at ALEC; Shell and BP passed shareholder resolutions to factor climate change into the cost of doing business (Exxon and Chevron did not, and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson decided to stay the course by continuing to question the legitimacy of climate models).
But compared to the deceitful actions these companies have taken in the past, it's all way too little -- and it's coming decades too late.