Exxon and Climate Change: What is Known and What is Not Known
With Pulitzer Prize ambitions, Inside Climate News (ICN) in 2015 published an investigative series on Exxon’s shift from “cutting-edge climate research” to “the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed.” Nine articles from four primary authors went into ICN’s eight-month effort that included interviews and deep archival research.
The story featured Exxon (and later, Exxon Mobil) employees – some, newly-hired scientists – who offered their take on climate science and their opinions, some dire, about carbon dioxide (CO2) and global warming.
ICN’s series (published together in Exxon: The Road Not Taken) left vital questions unanswered:
- Did Exxon’s research resolve the company’s two climate questions?
- What would further research have accomplished, and would further research have been cost-justified?
- Did Exxon “manufacture,” “amplify,” or merely report uncertainty in climate science?
- Were Exxon’s doubts reasonable at the time? Are they still today?
- What were the company’s options at the time?
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Exxon outfitted its supertanker Esso Atlantic with a lab, sensors, and scientists to measure CO2 concentrations at various depths and locations between the Gulf of Mexico and the Persian Gulf. ICN’s second article in the series briefly documents Exxon’s efforts and lists the two questions the company set out to answer:
- How much of the CO2 in the air came from fossil fuels as opposed to deforestation?
- How quickly could the oceans absorb atmospheric CO2?
ICN reports that that the data collected by the floating lab eventually helped to answer the first question. A study published in 1990, “partially based on the tanker data,” found that “land-based ecosystems… absorbed more atmospheric CO2 than the oceans.” A 2009 study, also using Exxon’s data, determined that “the oceans absorb only about 20 percent of the CO2 emitted annually from fossil fuels and other human activities.” (Current research puts the amount at about 30 percent.)
Was Further Research Justified?
ICN faults Exxon for not continuing its oceanographic studies but does not suggest what the new goals should have been. Nor does it consider the question of whether the benefits would have been worth the costs. Apparently, neither the company nor the federal government believed that they would. As ICN reported, “Exxon’s enthusiasm for the project flagged in the early ’80s when federal funds fell through.”
In the seventh article of its Road Not Taken series, ICN quotes an internal 1981 Exxon document recommending that the research be discontinued:
In addition, the document stated:
While ICN and others such as Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes claimed that “Exxon knew” about the potential dangers of climate change, the second quotation above highlights that, within Exxon itself, the question of the seriousness of global warming was hardly “settled science.” True, different employees said and wrote different things, and some internal reports sounded alarm bells. However, a second deep dive into the company’s archives is merited to determine whether cover letters and other documents moderated the expressed alarm.
In any event, the company’s position was moderate, clear, and reasonable. The context of the times, which ICN’s authors ignore, supports this interpretation. Then, the largest climate concern was global cooling, and Exxon was debating a bigger issue, Peak Oil. “Thinking that the oil industry might well be dying a slow death,” Joseph Pratt and William Hale wrote in the company history, “Exxon and most major oil companies moved out of oil in search of opportunities for… long-term growth.”
In terms of fossil fuels and global warming, in fact, the belief and hope among environmentalists was that natural depletion would lead to economic exhaustion and help reduce CO2 emissions. But then came the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) revolution that put Peak Oil and Peak Gas concerns to bed for the foreseeable future.
Despite the claims of ICN, Exxon’s research agenda was consistent with the times. In our next post, we’ll consider the doubts this same research spawned within Exxon and consider how reasonable those doubts were.
Robert Bradley Jr and Richard Fulmer are coauthors of the primer Energy: The Master Resource (2004) and other writings on free-market energy and climate policy.
 Joseph Pratt and William Hale, Exxon: Transforming Energy, 1973–2005 (Austin, TX: Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, 2013), p. 167.