An email from a former climate expert at US energy major ExxonMobil has revealed that the company knew about the impact of oil and gas exploration on the climate as early as 1981, and that it allegedly spent millions to support advocates of climate change denial for almost three decades.
Lenny Bernstein, a 30-year industry veteran and Exxon's former in-house climate expert, alleged in an email that the company was well aware of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on global warming as early as 1981, seven years before the issue became noticed.
"Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia," he wrote.
He noted that the immense reserve of gas contained 70% of CO2, which has to be vented to the atmosphere or injected into the earth to make the gas usable.
"When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions," he said.
Exxon decided not to go ahead with the project, given the climate implications.
While Exxon never denied the potentials that humans possess to impact the climate system, it questioned the validity of some of the science and funded groups promoting climate change denial.
Bernstein wrote the email in response to an inquiry on business ethics from the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University. It was released by the Union of Concerned Scientists on 8 July as part of a report on climate disinformation promoted by companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Peabody Energy, called the Climate Deception Dossiers.
"Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future," Bernstein writes in his email, adding that Exxon is "far more ethical than many other large corporations".
"They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits."
An Exxon spokesman told the Guardian that the company now sees climate change as a risk, adding that it does not "fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change."
Below is the full text of the scientist's email to Alyssa Bernstein, director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University
Alyssa's right. Feel free to share this e-mail with her. Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point.
Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2. That CO2 would have to be separated to make the natural gas usable. Natural gas often contains CO2 and the technology for removing CO2 is well known. In 1981 (and now) the usual practice was to vent the CO2 to the atmosphere. When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions. I'm sure that it would still be the largest point source of CO2, but since CO2 emissions have grown faster than projected in 1989, it would probably account for a smaller fraction of global CO2 emissions.
The alternative to venting CO2 to the atmosphere is to inject it into ground. This technology was also well known, since the oil industry had been injecting limited quantities of CO2 to enhance oil recovery. There were many questions about whether the CO2 would remain in the ground, some of which have been answered by Statoil's now almost 20 years of experience injecting CO2 in the North Sea. Statoil did this because the Norwegian government placed a tax on vented CO2. It was cheaper for Statoil to inject CO2 than pay the tax. Of course, Statoil has touted how much CO2 it has prevented from being emitted.
In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue. Natural resource companies – oil, coal, minerals – have to make investments that have lifetimes of 50-100 years. Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations. Exxon NEVER denied the potential for humans to impact the climate system. It did question – legitimately, in my opinion – the validity of some of the science.
Political battles need to personify the enemy. This is why liberals spend so much time vilifying the Koch brothers – who are hardly the only big money supporters of conservative ideas. In climate change, the first villain was a man named Donald Pearlman, who was a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. (In another life, he was instrumental in getting the US Holocaust Museum funded and built.) Pearlman's usefulness as a villain ended when he died of lung cancer – he was a heavy smoker to the end.
Then the villain was the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a trade organization of energy producers and large energy users. I was involved in GCC for a while, unsuccessfully trying to get them to recognize scientific reality. (That effort got me on to the front page of the New York Times, but that's another story.) Environmental group pressure was successful in putting GCC out of business, but they also lost their villain. They needed one which wouldn't die and wouldn't go out of business. Exxon, and after its merger with Mobil ExxonMobil, fit the bill, especially under its former CEO, Lee Raymond, who was vocally opposed to climate change regulation. ExxonMobil's current CEO, Rex Tillerson, has taken a much softer line, but ExxonMobil has not lost its position as the personification of corporate, and especially climate change, evil. It is the only company mentioned in Alyssa's e-mail, even though, in my opinion, it is far more ethical that many other large corporations.
Having spent twenty years working for Exxon and ten working for Mobil, I know that much of that ethical behavior comes from a business calculation that it is cheaper in the long run to be ethical than unethical. Safety is the clearest example of this. ExxonMobil knows all too well the cost of poor safety practices. The Exxon Valdez is the most public, but far from the only, example of the high cost of unsafe operations. The value of good environmental practices are more subtle, but a facility that does a good job of controlling emission and waste is a well run facility, that is probably maximizing profit. All major companies will tell you that they are trying to minimize their internal CO2 emissions. Mostly, they are doing this by improving energy efficiency and reducing cost. The same is true for internal recycling, again a practice most companies follow. Its [sic] just good engineering.
I could go on, but this e-mail is long enough.