Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years A newly unearthed missive from Lenny Bernstein, a climate expert with the oil firm for 30 years, shows concerns over high presence of carbon dioxide in enormous gas field in south-east Asia factored into decision not to tap it by Suzanne Goldenberg, July 8, 2015, The Guardian
ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, knew as early as 1981 of climate change – seven years before it became a public issue, according to a newly discovered email from one of the firm’s own scientists. Despite this the firm spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial.
The email from Exxon’s in-house climate expert provides evidence the company was aware of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and the potential for carbon-cutting regulations that could hurt its bottom line, over a generation ago – factoring that knowledge into its decision about an enormous gas field in south-east Asia. The field, off the coast of Indonesia, would have been the single largest source of global warming pollution at the time.
“Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia,” Lenny Bernstein, a 30-year industry veteran and Exxon’s former in-house climate expert, wrote in the email. “This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2,” or carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.
However, 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 thinktanks and researchers that promoted climate denial, according to Greenpeace.
Exxon said on Wednesday that it now acknowledges the risk of climate change and does not fund climate change denial groups.
Some climate campaigners have likened the industry to the conduct of the tobacco industry which for decades resisted the evidence that smoking causes cancer.
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 south-east Asia’s biggest gas field, off Indonesia.
That was seven years ahead of other oil companies and the public, according to Bernstein’s account.
Climate change was largely confined to the realm of science until 1988, when the climate scientist James Hansen told Congress that global warming was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels.
By that time, it was clear that developing the Natuna site would set off a huge amount of climate change pollution – effectively a “carbon bomb”, according to Bernstein. [What about leaking energy well bores and frac’ing unleashing a global methane bomb? Methane is much worse a greenhouse gas then CO2]
“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,” Bernstein wrote.
The email was written in response to an inquiry on business ethics from the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University.
“What it shows is that Exxon knew years earlier than James Hansen’s testimony to Congress that climate change was a reality; that it accepted the reality, instead of denying the reality as they have done publicly, and to such an extent that it took it into account in their decision making, in making their economic calculation,” the director of the institute, Alyssa Bernstein (no relation), told the Guardian.
“One thing that occurs to me is the behavior of the tobacco companies denying the connection between smoking and lung cancer for the sake of profits, but this is an order of magnitude greater moral offence, in my opinion, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilisation, not to be melodramatic.”
Bernstein’s response, first posted on the institute’s website last October, was released by the Union of Concerned Scientists on Wednesday as part of a report on climate disinformation promoted by companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Peabody Energy, called the Climate Deception Dossiers.
… Exxon, unlike other companies and the public at large in the early 1980s, was already aware of climate change – and the prospect of regulations to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, according to Bernstein’s account.
… Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor who researches the history of climate science, said it was unsurprising Exxon would have factored climate change in its plans in the early 1980s – but she disputed Bernstein’s suggestion that other companies were not. She also took issue with Exxon’s assertion of uncertainty about the science in the 1980s, noting the National Academy of Science describing a consensus on climate change from the 1970s.
The White House and the National Academy of Sciences came out with reports on climate change in the 1970s, and government scientific agencies were studying climate change in the 1960s, she said. There were also a number of major scientific meetings on climate change in the 1970s.
“I find it difficult to believe that an industry whose business model depends on fossil fuels could have been completely ignoring major environmental reports, major environmental meetings taken place in which carbon dioxide and climate change were talked about,” she said in an interview with the Guardian. …
Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current of future.
… Bernstein, who is now in his mid-70s, spent 20 years as a scientist at Exxon and 10 years at Mobil. During the 1990s he headed the science and technology advisory committee of the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group that lobbied aggressively against the scientific consensus around the causes of climate change.
… Kenneth Kimmel, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said ExxonMobil and the other companies profiled in its report had failed to take responsibility about the danger to the public of producing fossil fuels. [Like they lie about and refuse to take responsibility about the danger to the public and neighbours of fracing?]
“Instead of taking responsibility, they have either directly – or indirectly through trade and industry groups – sown doubt about the science of climate change and fought efforts to cut emissions,”
[Like companies and their enablers (eg the AER, the Council of Canadian Academies, the provincial frac reports, etc) lying, claiming fracing is perfectly safe or go slow and experiment on Canadians; they never frac and have never frac’d anywhere drinking water supplies; fracing has never contaminated groundwater or tap water or drinking water or well water, ever; fracing is cleaner and better; fracing is good for the environment; is well regulated (when everywhere companies want to frac, regulators deregulate instead to enable fracing)?]
he wrote in a blogpost. “I believe that the conduct outlined in the UCS report puts the fossil fuel companies’ social license at risk. And once that social license is gone, it is very hard to get it back. Just look at what happened to tobacco companies after litigation finally pried open the documents that exposed decades of misinformation and deception.”
… Full text of 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.
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.
… 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. [Just like frac’ers are vocally and nastily opposed to being appropriately regulated] 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. [What about Rex not wanting a water tower for fracing or the associated traffic near his ranch, filing a lawsuit to stop it?]
Former Dept. of Justice Official Says Exxon News Worsens Liability Picture by Dan Zegart, July 8, 2015, desmogblog
The former Department of Justice lawyer who led the watershed lawsuit against tobacco companies, says that the news out today about oil giant ExxonMobil knowing as early as 1981 about the threat posed by climate change could worsen the fossil fuel industry’s liability picture. [Just wait til the cover up of frac harms explodes wide open]
Not only the media are buzzing over the revelation today that Exxon executives knew as early as 1981 of the significance of climate change and the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions, yet continued to fund scientists and a global misinformation campaign to sow doubt about whether global warming is real for another 27 years.
Lawyers thinking of suing the industry for its role in warming the planet will certainly take note of what could be a potent new piece of evidence.
The admission came in an email by Leonard Bernstein, a chemical engineer who was Exxon’s in-house climate specialist.
The revelations in the Bernstein email had a familiar ring to former federal Department of Justice lawyer Sharon Eubanks. Eubanks led DOJ’s successful lawsuit against the tobacco companies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws that proved a fifty-year-long conspiracy by Big Tobacco to create doubt about smoking’s hazards.
Eubanks said the revelations in the Bernstein email could significantly worsen the fossil fuel industry’s liability picture:
“It starts to look like a much longer conspiracy. It’s like what we discovered with tobacco – the more you push back the date of knowledge of the harm, the more you delay any remediation, the more people are affected. So your liability can grow exponentially as the timeline gets longer.”
Image from TXSharon
The Decades of Deception Must Stop by Union of Concerned Scientists, July 2015
Leaked documents show that many of largest oil, gas, and coal corporations are behind efforts to distort the science of [FRACING HEALTH HARMS TOO?] climate change and block action to reduce heat-trapping emissions. In addition, recent research shows that more than 13 percent of all industrial carbon pollution has been produced by just six fossil fuel corporations. Read the full Climate Dossiers here.
It’s time to hold the corporations behind the deception accountable for their actions and for the harm of their products. Join the call to stop climate deception by telling one or more of these companies that the decades of deception must stop. Click on the logos below to take action:
Despite increasing pressure from UCS supporters and others, Shell continues to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a leading group spreading climate disinformation. When reporters recently asked if Shell was going to leave ALEC, the CEO responded, “Watch this space.” We’ve been watching, but we can’t just sit back and wait. Keep the pressure on and tell Shell to stop funding ALEC now. No more Shell games on climate change.
BP has taken some positive steps recently, such as ending their funding of a leading group spreading climate disinformation, and supporting a shareholder resolution to be more transparent about climate risks. But, it’s not enough. Tell BP it’s also time to publicly distance itself from the deceptive behavior of the American Petroleum Institute. Tell BP to take more steps to stop supporting climate disinformation.
Chevron is pouring money into campaigns to roll back climate and clean energy solutions in California, Oregon, and Washington—and they are using undeniably false information about the true costs of climate action in order to confuse the public and policy makers. This deceptive behavior must stop. Tell Chevron to stop funding front groups.
ExxonMobil’s CEO continues to downplay and dismiss the enormous impacts and risks of climate change to our communities. Tell ExxonMobil’s CEO it is unacceptable to dismiss the enormous risk and impacts of climate change being felt today or to ignore the increasingly global call to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Tell ExxonMobil to stop spreading disinformation.
… ConocoPhillips supports the oil industry’s trade association in California, Oregon, and Washington—a trade association which uses undeniably false information about climate action and a network of groups masquerading as citizen-led organizations. Tell ConocoPhillips to stop funding faux grassroots organizations and efforts to undermine climate policy.
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