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