Home Science Environment ExxonMobil Scientists Knew About Climate Change in 1981, but Hid Findings

ExxonMobil Scientists Knew About Climate Change in 1981, but Hid Findings

It was as early as 1981 when ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, knew about climate change. This is seven years before the public knew it was an issue, according to the oil company’s scientists in a newly discovered email.

For 27 years, ExxonMobil spent millions promoting climate denial.

In the email, Exxon’s own climate expert says that the company was aware fossil fuels and climate change were connected. He talked about how the potential for carbon-cutting regulations would hurt its bottom line.

According to The Guardian, Exxon’s public position was marked by continued refusal to acknowledge the dangers of climate change, even in response to appeals from the Rockefellers, its founding family, and its continued financial support for climate denial. Over the years, Exxon spent more than $30m on think tanks and researchers who promoted climate denial, according to Greenpeace.

Email proves Exxon knew about climate change YEARS before everyone else:

This means that Exxon could have known that humankind was having an impact on climate change a full 8 years before climate change was brought to the public eye. The first public announcement referencing climate change was in 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen announced to Congress that climate change was being caused by a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, wrote Ifl Science.

Climate deniers exposed—top scientist got funding from ExxonMobil:

In the email, Bernstein, a chemical engineer and climate expert who spent 30 years at Exxon and Mobil, and was a lead author on two of the United Nations’ blockbuster IPCC climate science reports, said climate change first emerged on the company’s radar in 1981, when the company was considering the development of Southeast Asia’s biggest gas field off Indonesia, The Guardian added.

This is the full text of the scientist’s email

Below is the text of an email from Lenny Bernstein to the director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University, Alyssa Bernstein (no relation), who had asked for ideas to stimulate students for an ethics day announced by the Carnegie Council, wrote The Guardian.

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.

I would say this is pretty damming and just shows that money will always come first when it comes to big business.

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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