Texas-based ExxonMobil, one of the world's largest oil and gas companies, is the present day result of the long and winding history of the oil industry. It is the largest direct descendant of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, which, after being ruled an illegal monopoly way back in 1911, was broken up into Exxon, Mobil, Chevron and a couple other offshoots. Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999 to form ExxonMobil.
As an oil company, Exxon naturally has another long and convoluted history, one that hinges on its relationship with climate change; a phenomenon primarily driven by the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the burning of the very fossil fuels that make Exxon go "cha-ching." In recent weeks, a new investigation from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times has shed unwanted light on just how much Exxon knew about climate change, for how long, and what the company did, didn't do, and tried to stop from happening.
This newfound attention has led to an outcry for a further investigation by the Department of Justice as to whether the company's seemingly unsavory actions can be classified as corporate fraud. The controversy has now being refracted by the the prism of the presidential race, with two Democratic candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Mally, requesting the DOJ to take action.
O'Malley recently tweeted that, “We held tobacco companies responsible for lying about cancer. Let’s do the same for oil companies & climate change.”
Sanders wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Tuesday stating that “it appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse.”
Sanders's letter states that the recent investigation shows that "top Exxon scientists concluded both that climate change is real and that it was caused in part by the carbon pollution resulting from the use of Exxon's petroleum-based products," as early as 1977.
Democratic congressmen Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier of California, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have also called on the DOJ to "investigate Exxon for organizing a sustained deception campaign."
According to Bill McKibben, long-time climate journalist, activist and co-founder of the environmental organization 350.org, the recent stories changed "the accepted narrative of the fight" he's spent most of his life waging. He told InsideClimate News that "had Exxon been forthright in the late 80s or early 90s, they could have short-circuited the faux debate we've been engaged in all these decades. They were the ones that had the unique credibility to do it."
In other words, we could be in a much better position to prevent catastrophic climate change had Exxon higher-ups made a few different decisions during this key historical juncture.
Even the Dallas Morning News, right in Exxon's backyard, sees missed opportunity in the company's inaction, saying in a recent editorial that "from a 2015 perspective, it appears that Exxon missed a golden opportunity to take a responsible course and gradually steer the world away from a reckless dependence on fossil fuels."
What does ExxonMobil have to say about all this?
On Wednesday, Oct. 21, the company issued a remorseless statement regarding the issue, saying that "media and environmental activists’ allegations about the company’s climate research are inaccurate and deliberately misleading."
According to ExxonMobil's vice president of public and government affairs, Ken Cohen, "activists deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various company employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers."
Cohen did say that ExxonMobil recognizes that past participation "in broad coalitions that opposed ineffective climate policies subjects us to criticism by climate activist groups."
He also said that since 2009 ExxonMobil has supported a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a more economically efficient policy choice than regulations, mandates, or standards, when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
These broad and emboldened statements only made ExxonMobil appear more guilty to some, such as climate scientist Michael Mann, who tweeted that "This defensive, disingenuous press release is most damning thing yet about
@ExxonMobil's campaign of climate deceit."
So what did the investigations reveal that have politicians, activists and scientists so riled up?
The Los Angeles Times found a "gulf" between the company's internal and external approach to climate change from the 80s to the early 2000s, during which Exxon both extensively researched how greenhouse gas emissions could impact climate change while at the same time neglecting to take public action and even disseminating misinformation.
Early on, Exxon scientists created climate models that have in many cases accurately held up in predicting how global warming would impact especially vulnerable regions like the Arctic. These models showed things like the increasing variability and unpredictability of the weather and an opening of Arctic waters as shipping lanes for longer annual intervals. These factors were, and still are, very important to Exxon, a company that relies on extracting new and increasingly remote sources of oil to keep revenue flowing.
As InsideClimate News reported, in July 1977, a senior company scientist named James F. Black told Exxon's leaders that "there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels."
As InsideClimate News reported:
Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon's ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company's understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.
Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.
In a 2012 PBS interview, Steve Coll, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, said that the radical thing the Exxon did that really altered the debate around climate change was to go after the science.
He said that while many oil companies lobbied against past climate accords, such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, on "economic and fairness grounds," Exxon took a different tact, based in large part, according to Coll, on the "personal conviction of the chief executive, Lee Raymond."
"He believed that it was a hoax, in effect, that the earth was not warming at all…So he not only went after the treaty bargain, but funded, often in the early years surreptitiously, campaigns to attack the science that were carried out by nonscientific groups, often by free-market ideologues," said Coll.
"In time, perhaps we will understand what the internal reaction among scientists within ExxonMobil was to this campaigning, because there’s some evidence that within ExxonMobil, there was study going on about how global warming could affect oil discovery, for example," said Coll.
That statement of "some evidence" has now been elevated thanks the these new investigations, and more people want answers to the peculiar approach to climate change taken by the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company.