To commemorate ExxonMobil’s 2016 Annual Meeting of Shareholders set to be held today, we are releasing Part Two of our ongoing series reporting on the company’s treatment of the climate change issue in its 10-K filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from 2001 through 2008, coinciding with the Bush-Cheney administration (read Part One).
Calls for a U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) investigation — by presidential candidates, Members of Congress, and former DOJ attorney Sharon Eubanks — similar to the one conducted against Big Tobacco for lying about the connection of cigarette smoking and lung cancer, to determine whether Exxon Mobil Corp. should face federal charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act for knowingly misrepresenting scientific knowledge regarding global climate change and its impacts, have received significant play in the media over the last several months. Unsurprisingly, these appeals have been met with push-back by the oil company — and more recently in a Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial and a Wall Street Journal editorial, both summarily slammed for multiple gross distortions by the journalistic watchdog group Media Matters. The more imminent and potentially more problematic legal threat for ExxonMobil (also referred to simply as Exxon) than a future DOJ probe is the ongoing criminal investigation of the oil giant by the state of New York.
Uniquely armed with broad investigative and prosecutorial powers under the Martin Act, a 1921 “Blue Sky” New York state law (amended in 1982) intended to prevent financial fraud, state Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed ExxonMobil on November 4, 2015 to determine whether the oil giant has been knowingly deceiving its investors and the public (over a span of decades!) as to potential risks to its operations posed by human-induced global warming and associated impacts. California AG Kamala Harris may be conducting a similar investigation, and Maryland AG Brian Frosh has indicated he may do so as well.
Whether ExxonMobil, or any of its competitors in the oil industry for that matter, will ultimately face state or federal criminal charges is anyone’s guess. Much clearer and demonstrable at this point is the distinct disparity between what Exxon has been saying and disclosing to its investors and shareholders (primarily via its 10-K filings with the SEC, the main focus of this series) and what Exxon has been saying and doing both publicly and privately behind closed doors as part of an apparently organized and carefully crafted communications strategy. One of the more damning pieces of evidence of their seeming intent to deceive is the leaked 1998 Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan — a collaborative effort of Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute (API), and other key fossil energy interests. The body of evidence is vast and complex and, in some instances, nuanced and requires context. Nevertheless, in our view, ExxonMobil’s chronic duplicity is unmistakable.
Irrespective of the ultimate outcome of any state or federal probe into ExxonMobil, a solid narrative has formed that appears to be growing into a grassroots movement to hold the fossil fuel industries in general (and ExxonMobil in particular) accountable for their respective roles in helping to engineer what CSPW has referred to since its inception in 2005 as the “global warming denial machine.” (Note to our readers, this phrase is an established CSPW website category going back to 2006, populated with several hundred posts, many of which focus on Exxon).
Now popularized in social media under the Twitter hashtag #ExxonKnew, the moniker and its implicit message strike to the heart of what tends to stick in people’s craw: namely, the apparent, abrupt pivot
Exxon executives took at some point in the mid-1980s, when some sort of sea change evidently took place at corporate headquarters. Thanks to stellar investigative journalism at InsideClimate News (ICN), the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, we have learned (or were reminded) that, back when Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter occupied the White House, when sideburns and wide ties were in fashion, Exxon was spending millions of its own dollars to conduct basic, in-house, curiosity-driven research on carbon dioxide levels in our oceans — and its leaders were understandably and legitimately worried about what that might portend. We also were reminded that Exxon subsequently did everything in its power to convince the public to stop worrying, despite what the science was saying — to carry on, businesses-as-usual.
In other words, Exxon’s message to the world: It’s OK to wait for more definitive answers before we go inconveniently altering our carefree, consumptive lifestyles.
Or, is it?
Younger generations are waking up to the harsh reality of a compromised and potentially very dangerous global climate system in the only world in which they have to live, grow, and raise families. Naturally, they are looking for obvious culprits, and ExxonMobil is squarely on the radar. They are demanding explanations, and deserve to know the truth; we all do. Why and how did a corporate culture characterized by open-minded curiosity and concern regarding rising carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere as a direct result of fossil fuel combustion suddenly morph into a closed-minded culture known for its stubborn insistence that, despite what the body of evidence was showing at any given time, climate science was (and still is) too dicey, too uncertain (so goes the mantra) to warrant legislation aimed at cutting carbon emissions. The answer is painfully obvious: at Exxon, cutting carbon equals cutting corporate profit, a cardinal sin. And so, Deny. Delay. Delude. Repeat.
Notably, Exxon has exhibited a harsher, more stubborn recalcitrance on the climate change question, compared with other oil majors, such as BP Amoco. One 2000 study found “striking” differences between these two corporations with regard to their attitudes and actions on global climate change and BP Amoco was found to be significantly “more willing [than Exxon] to contemplate a world that uses less oil.” Less oil, you say? Exxon apparently would not have it. Perhaps this is why Exxon is being singled out for scrutiny: sheer hubris. And now, if only in the court of public opinion, this hubris is coming around to haunt Exxon.
Now, we resume our timeline initiated in Part One covering years 1993 through 2000, with another well-documented offense that rightly belongs in the proverbial evidence locker. Almost exactly sixteen years ago, on March 23, 2000, The New York Times ran an advertisement paid for by ExxonMobil featuring a line graph of temperature data for the Sargasso Sea from a scientific study authored by Lloyd Keigwin, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Falsely implying the graph was representative of overall surface temperatures, the ad stated that “poorly understood natural variability” makes it “impossible for scientists to attribute the recent small surface temperature increase to human causes.” The ad extolled possible virtues of higher carbon dioxide concentrations (e.g., promotion of crop and forest growth), talked about both positive and negative consequences of climate change, and characterized as “empty rhetoric” calls for near-term public policy responses by “some [who] argue that the science debate is settled.”
“I believe ExxonMobil has been misleading in its use of the Sargasso Sea data… There’s really no way these results bear on the question of human-induced climate warming… I think the sad thing is that a company with the resources of ExxonMobil is exploiting the data for political purposes.”
A sad story indeed, one that grew even sadder when, a couple of months later, ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond blatantly misrepresented the Sargasso Sea data as global temperature data in a statement used as corporate ammunition to shoot down a climate-related shareholder resolution offered at its May 2000 annual shareholders meeting. Will this particular example of deception eventually make its way into a prosecutorial argument presented before a judge?
Raymond must have either missed or disagreed with the admonishment in a November 2000 article published in Harvard Business Review, targeted to industry executives, warning that “companies that effectively calculate the risks and opportunities of climate change will be able to survive the coming storms.” Referring to the Global Climate Coalition, the piece pushes on:
“The coalition and its supporters appear to be betting against the weight of scientific opinion, but their approach to the problem may be subtler than it appears. If they can stall regulation of carbon-dioxide emissions, they might be able to protect the short-term values of their assets. They may hope they’ll be able to convince the public that government regulation is a greater evil than climate change. In doing so, they run the risk of missing out on the opportunity to help tip the balance toward more sensible forms of intervention.”
Fast forward to 2016: ExxonMobil is still making regulation out to be the bogeyman.
Recall from Part One, no mention is made of climate change in ExxonMobil’s 10-K report for FY 2000, despite the following realities at the time:
- Attitudes had shifted markedly in the U.S., as compared with a decade before, toward taking the climate threat seriously and believing action should be taken. For example, a publication by the American Chemical Society reports that a 1998 survey by the World Wildlife Fund revealed that nearly 60 percent of Americans perceived global warming as a “real problem,” and a March 1999 poll taken by the Mellman Group determined that three fourths of a group consisting of representatives in Congress, industry association leaders, the media, economists, scientists, and other policy experts believed US action to cut carbon emissions was necessary.
- In 2000, even The New York Times admitted that those who were actively denying and taking issue with the seriousness of the climate change threat represented “the contrarian view.”
- The industry front-group formed to impede an international climate treaty, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), began fizzling out after losing key members: British Petroleum (BP) in 1996; Royal Dutch Shell in 1997; Ford Motor Company in 1999 (the first US company to defect); and Daimler-Chrysler, Texaco, the Southern Company, and General Motors in 2000. ExxonMobil stayed in. (Find additional detail at The Heat Is Online.) A postscript: the GCC subsequently identified itself as an umbrella group for trade associations, and closed its doors for good in 2001.
- Some who perceived the full gravity of the climate change problem took the view that “desperate times call for desperate measures” and began considering what some of us in climate policy circles at the time jokingly referred to as the “Geritol” solution. By introducing massive amounts of iron into the ocean, the theory goes, we could catalyze photosynthesis in phytoplankton, resulting in a sort of giant swallowing of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In November 2000, Wired Magazine helped to popularize this last-ditch (and since rejected) effort at salvation in “Dumping Iron.”
- International pressure to move forward on implementing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol led to another set of U.N. talks in The Hague in November 2000. The talks ultimately collapsed, and as the world’s biggest polluter at the time, the United States was held largely to blame.
- In the waning days of the Clinton administration, the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) released a seminal 2000 report to Congress, Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, required by the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990. As stipulated, it was distributed to all Members of Congress and made available to the public. Comprised of nearly a dozen regional assessments of climate impacts, drawing on information and guidance from hundreds of stakeholders, the report was detailed and robust enough to be used as a guide for helping to anticipate and prepare for a panoply of climate change consequences: extreme weather, storm surges, more intense and frequent hurricanes and floods, sea level rise, prolonged droughts, increased wildfires, melting glaciers, and so on. The outgoing Clinton-Gore team had handed the incoming Bush-Cheney team a treasure trove of valuable information on a silver platter. How was it received? Read on.
2001: Some content of ExxonMobil’s Form 10-K for FY 2001 did deviate from the boilerplate language that appears in the 10-Ks from 1993 to 2000. For example, new language appeared, under the category Industry and Economic Factors affecting ExxonMobil’s business operations. The relevant paragraph with the new wording (in bold) calls attention to the well-established knowledge that harsh weather is not always predictable and can cause problems, even for oil giants. It’s tiny, but it’s a start.
Industry and Economic Factors: The operations and earnings of the corporation and its affiliates throughout the world are affected by local, regional and global events or conditions that affect supply and demand for oil, natural gas, petroleum products, petrochemicals and other ExxonMobil products. These events or conditions are generally not predictable (emphasis added) and include, among other things, general economic growth rates and the occurrence of economic recessions; the development of new supply sources; adherence by countries to OPEC quotas; supply disruptions; weather, including seasonal patterns that affect energy demand and severe weather events that can disrupt operations (emphasis added); technological advances, including advances in exploration, production, refining, and petrochemical manufacturing technology and advances in technology relating to energy usage; changes in demographics, including population growth rates and consumer preferences; and the competitiveness of alternative energy sources or product substitutes.
This seemingly obvious, innocuous comment about the weather raises for us some important questions:
Question 1: At this point — which would be early 2002 when the 10-K was being prepared for the previous fiscal year — did the company draw any connection between “severe weather events” acknowledged in the 10-K and “extreme weather” predicted by multiple IPCC Assessment Reports to date and the USGCRP 2000 National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts?
Question 2: Was CEO Lee Raymond cognizant of ExxonMobil’s own carbon footprint, of the massive carbon dioxide emissions resulting from consumer use of its products as intended?
Question 3: Was there any perception that its own operations could be disrupted by extreme weather brought about by human-caused global climate disruption?
If so, there was no evidence of it in its reports for shareholders, and Exxon’s 10-K for 2001, again, omits any discussion of climate change or national and international efforts to address it.
The backdrop for 2001: ExxonMobil as climate bully
In early 2001, just as deliberately and forcefully as ExxonMobil was turning its back on formally acknowledging any notion of problems with Earth’s climate, the company was excitedly embracing sudden changes in our national political climate. Regime change had come, and the sound of champagne corks popping in the new Bush-Cheney White House were nearly audible as far away as Irving, Texas, headquarters for ExxonMobil, which now had a prominent seat at the table at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. ExxonMobil’s Washington, D.C. office was strategically located just a few blocks away from the Oval, at 2001 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. Arthur G. Randol III, Ph.D., known simply as Randy Randol, served at the time as Exxon’s “Senior Environmental Advisor,” but in practice he was a full-time lobbyist evidently tasked with fending off any and all Congressional attempts to introduce and pass legislation curtailing carbon emissions or even addressing climate change in any meaningful way.
His actions reveal his mission. We can report one prime example, in exclusive coverage of information obtained by GAP and released today by The Guardian:
On the morning of January 29, 2001, just one week into the new Republican administration, Randol placed a phone call to the USGCRP Coordinating Office, asking to speak with its Communications Director, Nicky Sundt. Sundt took the call and made written notes of the conversation as it took place; he has shared his phone log of the exchange with CSPW:
29 January 2001. Sundt receives a phone call from Randy Randol of Exxon-Mobil. Arthur G. Randol, III is senior environmental adviser for Exxon Mobil Corp. He says [someone] forwarded him a copy of some survey questions that Sundt sent to Congressional staffers. The survey related to the possibility of sponsoring climate science seminars on Capitol Hill. Randol called Sundt and wanted to know a little about where USGCRP was headed with the seminars. Randol suggested that previous USGCRP seminars were “agenda-driven” and indicated that with the new administration and Congress — “IF the seminars continue” — he hoped to see a different balance with other viewpoints. He suggested a “different process” for picking topics and speakers. He said USGCRP needed to look at the structure of seminar series and suggested USGCRP put more emphasis on putting things in context. He specifically mentioned the NRC’s “Global Change: Pathways for the Next Decade” report as providing a useful framework.
According to Sundt, he did more listening than responding, and was alarmed enough by the direct attempt of an oil company lobbyist to blatantly influence legitimate communications to Congress regarding taxpayer-funded programs that he immediately reported the call to USGCRP Director Richard Moss. While not stated explicitly, Randol’s motive was clear to Sundt: ExxonMobil was interested in limiting the scope of communications between the USGCRP Coordinating Office and Congressional staff to the basic physical science of climate change, and to stay away from talking about climate change impacts and our collective vulnerability to them. After all, it was not in the oil company’s interest to have a bunch of Congressmen and Senators asking probing questions about the troubling findings in the USGCRP National Assessment report that had recently been distributed to every office in the House and Senate, warning of harmful climate impacts in a dozen regions of the United States. Instead, Randol redirected Sundt to a report focused narrowly on basic climate research, Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade, a 1999 National Research Council publication identifying specific areas of basic climate science research needing more attention, devoid of content addressing the array of impacts affecting real people (i.e., consumers), in real places (i.e., markets). Meanwhile, the Bush White House went to work deep-sixing the National Assessment report, suppressing it, quietly getting the message across to political appointees and civil servants alike that they’d best avoid mention of the report or its findings, or else. CSPW founder Rick Piltz would later identify this mass suppression as “the central climate science scandal of the Bush Administration.”
Prime example number two of Randy Randol’s (and ExxonMobil’s) agenda to derail both domestic and international efforts to reach agreement on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be found in a memo he sent over to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), dated February 6, 2001, just one week after the call to the USGCRP. The memo is addressed to John Howard, CEQ’s Senior Associate Director at the time. The IPCC was on track to produce a Third Assessment Report (TAR) later that year, and ExxonMobil was, we now know, determined to do all it could to have greater control over the content of these international assessments representing the collective research results of nearly 3,000 highly credible scientists worldwide. From the White House CEQ director, Randol wanted answers to some fairly pointed questions.
First, Randol asked: “Could [IPCC Chair Robert] Watson be replaced now at the request of the U.S.?”
Sir Robert Tony Watson (knighted by the Queen of England in 2012) had chaired the IPCC since 1997; ExxonMobil was overtly clear it wanted him ousted and to have him replaced by Rajendra Pachauri, whom the company viewed as more industry-friendly. ExxonMobil ultimately got its way: Watson gave up his position as Chair in May 2002 and was replaced by Pachauri.
Randol doesn’t stop there. In the memo he also asks if Dr. Rosina Bierbaum, Associate Director for Environment on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Dr. Michael MacCracken, Executive Director of the US Global Change Research Program, have been “removed from their positions of influence.” Randol attacks the 2000 National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts as “roundly criticized for its political and scientific bias” and “driven by a political schedule to help the Gore campaign,” allegations that have never been credibly corroborated.
The second week of the Bush-Cheney administration also brought the top-secret formation of the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG), later known simply as the Energy Task Force, chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney. Dozens of task force meetings were held with outside groups, energy and environmental organizations, private companies and individuals; meetings so deeply shrouded that it took six full years for even partial knowledge of their inner workings and meeting attendees to be revealed: the Washington Post broke the story in July 2007.
To this day, we still do not have the full picture of what happened behind the closed-door meetings of the Energy Task Force, despite multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and several lawsuits, though a fairly good timeline has been constructed. On May 16, 2001, the NEPDG released its final report which was taken to be the new “national energy policy” to serve as a template for altering the regulatory landscape.
While it is beyond the scope of this series to provide detail, suffice it to say the oil and gas industry was treated well during the George W. Bush presidency. Moreover, while we now have evidence to the contrary, ExxonMobil vice president James J. Rouse and CEO Lee Raymond attended task force meetings, provided substantive input to the White House regarding energy policy, and vehemently denied doing so when questioned directly by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), as witnesses testified in a 2005 Congressional hearing (see, for example, coverage by CBS News). While they could not be accused of perjury as they were not officially under oath, their outright dishonesty was exposed as such in a scathing headline in the November 16, 2005 Washington Post which broke the story: Document Says Oil Chiefs Met With Cheney Task Force. The accompanying photograph — the picture that says a thousand words — shows ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond at the far left, joining in one of the oil industry’s most famous group lies.
Mainstream press coverage was abundant; this November 17, 2005 CBS News report is a good example of what the public was finally able to learn after years of speculation and suspected secrecy.
2001 was a year chock-full of bad news for those hoping for a positive public policy response to the looming climate change threat. The U.S. Senate with a narrow Republican majority did not have the votes needed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and, 15 years ago, on March 28, 2001, Christine Todd Whitman, Bush’s choice to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that the United States had “no interest” in implementing the painstakingly crafted terms of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Bush kills global warming treaty, proclaimed The Guardian on March 29. Kyoto was officially dead, it seemed. (Ultimately, the treaty entered into force in 2005 when the requisite 55 nations ratified its terms; the U.S. never became a signatory.)
A few weeks later, The Guardian published an article blasting ExxonMobil for its role in stymieing progress on slowing global warming. How the high priests of capitalism run roughshod over fears for planet quotes Kenneth P. Cohen, the company’s head of government relations and public affairs (i.e., the new Randy Randol):
“We know we have a giant target painted on our chests.”
The target, one could argue, was painted on Planet Earth and the weapon pointed at it was in the hands of ExxonMobil and the rest of Big Oil. Greenpeace International successfully launched a harsh negative ad campaign targeting ExxonMobil (known as Esso in Europe). Meanwhile, Charles Keeling’s Mauna Loa carbon dioxide curve (see Part One for more detail) continued to climb, and the spirits of many intent on some sort of rational response to the climate problem continued to take a nosedive.
On September 11, 2001, two large passenger airliners crashed directly into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; a third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth was downed before it could reach Washington, D.C. “9-11” changed everything, it seemed. Domestic policymaking necessarily took a back seat to the nation’s need to recover from shock, bury its dead, and seek to understand what had happened and who was behind the attack. Within short order, plans were in the works to invade Iraq. Climate change dropped way down on the list of public policy priorities.
In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Third Assessment Report (TAR); five years had passed since the Second Assessment Report (SAR) had been released in 1996, and climate science had significantly evolved. Each of three working groups issued its own voluminous report: I) The Scientific Basis, II) Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, and III) Mitigation (active measures to bring down atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases). The three working group reports were then condensed into a Synthesis Report. In the TAR, newer and stronger evidence emerged that the bulk of Earth’s warming that occurred over the previous 50 years was attributable to human activities (primarily the combustion of oil, gas, and coal), and the level of scientific certainty attached to each major conclusion regarding global average temperature increases and associated impacts rose to levels on which any major decision could arguably be based.
By the close of 2001, one wonders if ExxonMobil executives had bothered to familiarize themselves with the conclusions drawn from the IPCC Third Assessment Report. Was anyone at corporate headquarters concerned with how the multinational corporation would deal with and respond to mounting challenges in a climate-disrupted world? And, if not, why not? What CEO of a major corporation chooses to remain in the dark regarding a serious threat to its own business interests?
It’s a serious question.
2002: By the time the 2002 10-K report was submitted to the SEC, in late March 2003, CEO Lee Raymond had turned 64 years of age and was closing in on forced retirement, which occurs at 65. Senior Vice President Rex Tillerson, then 51, was being groomed for the position and was reportedly already actively involved with Raymond in top-level decision-making. Tillerson’s attitudes toward climate change, we soon learn, are all but indistinguishable from those of his predecessor.
The new language ExxonMobil had introduced in its 2001 10-K filing was carried through to its Form 10-K for 2002; the report again includes under Risks: Industry and Economic Factors: “weather, including seasonal patterns that affect energy demand and severe weather events that can disrupt operations” among other factors (such as “supply disruptions”). In this, the tenth 10-K report CSPW reviewed, we continued to find radio silence on likely and potential risks to its global operations associated with climate disruption. It’s a silence that speaks volumes given all else the corporation was doing and saying that year.
Take, for example, the 10-page letter ExxonMobil staff scientist Brian Flannery wrote to presidential science advisor John Marburger in March 2002. Noting ExxonMobil’s 20-plus year involvement in climate science research and the many scientific papers it had produced and submitted to the IPCC, Flannery urged Marburger to pressure the USGCRP to set its focus on reducing scientific uncertainties; the clear, implicit message was to stay away from talking about climate change impacts. Even though the USGCRP had a clear mandate from Congress to study and report on climate change impacts and to draw connections between mounting carbon emissions and heat waves, sea level rise, extreme weather, more intense flooding, prolonged droughts, and so on, ExxonMobil had a vested interest in those connections not being drawn.
Or, did it? In a provocative paper published in 2002, “Risking Shareholder Value? ExxonMobil and Climate Change—An Investigation of Unnecessary Risks and Missed Opportunities,” author Mark Mansley warns:
“For investors…the key point is that ExxonMobil’s current strategy on global warming endangers (emphasis added) shareholder value.” The notion that crude oil will eventually become a “stranded asset” for corporations such as ExxonMobil, and thus could jeopardize its stock value, is a growing concern.
At the 2002 annual shareholders meeting on May 29, a remarkable thing happened. A repeat shareholder resolution asking the company to adopt a policy to promote renewable energy as part of its energy portfolio (as BP and Royal Dutch Shell had recently done) was submitted, approved by the SEC over ExxonMobil’s objections), and put to a vote. The proposal amassed an unprecedented 20.3 percent of the shareholder vote, representing about $60 billion in shares — a level of support four or five times higher than for most other “dissident” resolutions (see archived ENS News report). The same resolution received 9 percent of the vote in 2001. In his book Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan notes that the unusually high approval rate “sent shock waves” through corporate headquarters and caused the company to change its tune, “soften its stance” toward global warming, and tone down the rhetoric in its frequent advertisements in The New York Times.
While the Bush-Cheney White House was still holding top-secret Energy Task Force meetings with a variety of corporate energy interests, what must have been an awkward moment for President George W. Bush occurred. On June 13, in a rose garden ceremony, Bush presented fifteen scientists, including Mauna Loa’s Dr. Charles Keeling of tropospheric carbon dioxide measurement fame, with the National Medal of Science: the highest U.S. award for scientific research lifetime achievement.
In late September 2002, ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, and each member of ExxonMobil’s board of directors, received a lengthy, personal letter from Dr. Michael MacCracken, who was soon to leave his post as director of the USGCRP. Acknowledging attempts by ExxonMobil to have him ousted, MacCracken took the oil company to task for egregiously misleading messages in a whole series of paid advertisements in The New York Times, defending his positions using scientific citations. Rick Piltz posted the full letter on the Climate Science Watch website in 2006; it is well worth the read. Below are some excerpts, containing messages ExxonMobil leadership still needs to hear.
“While my departure may be satisfying to ExxonMobil, I can assure you that this will not make the scientific challenge of climate change and its impacts go away. That 150 countries unanimously agree about the science of this issue is not because of some “green” conspiracy, but because of the solid scientific underpinning for this issue. Certainly, there are uncertainties, but decisions are made under uncertainty all the time—that is what executives are well paid to do.
I offer this advice to you in remembrance of my great grandfather, Samuel Calvin Tate Dodd, who a century ago was legal counsel to John D. Rockefeller (notably, he took no stock to ensure his opinions would not be tainted by the economic implications of his advice). What I rather imagine he would say is that you are on the wrong side of history, and you need to find a way to change your position…”
Some of ExxonMobil’s public rhetoric did soften in the latter part of 2002, but it was evidently just talk. ExxonMobil took zero action to address the looming climate threat.
The US Congress was not sitting idly by while the George W. Bush administration turned its back on the climate change issue. To the contrary, by the time the 107th Congress adjourned in late 2002, more than 80 proposals (bills, resolutions, and amendments) had been put forth, and about half of them had been acted upon in some way; for example, through committee hearings and markups. (C2ES provides a good summary.) A good example is the comprehensive bill introduced by Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vermont) titled The Clean Power Act, which required reductions in carbon dioxide (and other pollutant) emissions from electric power plants. Considered and passed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, then chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the bill was not acted upon by the House or Senate. No bill regulating the fossil fuel industry’s emissions would survive a certain veto by President Bush. Other similar bills were introduced and considered, but failed to make it through the many gauntlets required to pass into law. Meanwhile, atmospheric carbon levels continued to climb.
In late 2002, the eighth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or simply COP 8, took place in New Delhi. The Kyoto Protocol still lacked the requisite number of ratifications it needed to enter into force. Leaders of less developed nations rightfully complained that they were being hardest hit by climate change impacts, yet bore little of the responsibility for the emissions causing global warming. “Technology transfer” was the buzz phrase used to describe the obligation of the wealthier nations out of basic fairness to supply advanced technologies for economic growth, as well as funding.
In advance of the climate negotiations in New Delhi, Greenpeace International issued Exxon’s Weapons of Mass Deception, a report that included a forward by Bianca Jagger, wife of Rolling Stone rock star Mick Jagger. “As citizens of this planet,” she wrote, “we are each reliant on our governments’ representatives at the climate talks. But in amongst these delegates are powerful agents with vested interests who continue to wage a cynical, self-interested war to derail this vital process. The worst of these are the men from ExxonMobil.”
This type of high-profile negative publicity had to be ruffling feathers inside ExxonMobil’s headquarters, and had to sting a little bit; especially after the beating the corporation took at its annual shareholders meeting when one-fifth of the shareholders told the company it was heading the wrong way by failing to embrace cleaner, safer, energy sources. Given all that had taken place in 2001 and 2002, the failure to mention climate change as a potential risk to its bottom line in the 10-K report for fiscal year 2002 is a glaring — and highly questionable — omission.
2003: More new language appears in ExxonMobil’s Form 10-K for FY 2003 that appears to have been drafted by corporate attorneys interested in creative hedging. Two entirely new sentences appear under the same heading we’ve been discussing, category: Risks, subcategory: Industry and Economic Factors:
Throughout ExxonMobil’s businesses, new and ongoing measures are taken to prevent and minimize the impact of our operations on the air, water and ground. This includes a significant investment in refining technology to manufacture low-sulfur motor fuels and projects to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide emissions.
The first sentence is too vague and all-encompassing to mean anything at all. The second sentence is a bit of a mystery; it is not clear what is behind the mention of two specific pollutants, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, but not others typical of ExxonMobil’s oil extraction and refining operations. The reference to “severe weather events” introduced in 2001, carried over in the 2002 10-K report, appears again, verbatim, in the 2003 filing: “weather, including seasonal patterns that affect energy demand and severe weather events that can disrupt operations.”
What else was happening at ExxonMobil and in the world in 2003?
Arthur G. Randol, III, whom everyone knew as Randy Randol, retired and left his post as Senior Environmental Advisor, a position he held since the 1980s.
On the climate change question, ExxonMobil was now isolated and alone among the four “super-major” oil companies at the time; the other three — Shell, BP, and ChevronTexaco — were taking positive steps to face this difficult challenge. According to a study (full report, pdf) conducted by London-based Claros Consulting, strategies being explored by ExxonMobil’s three largest competitors included “incorporating ‘carbon pricing’ into future planning scenarios and decisions, setting emissions reductions targets, developing emissions trading experience, and investing in renewable energy.” Ceres, a coalition of investor and public interest groups working with major companies to increase corporate environmental responsibility worldwide, issued a May 2003 Press Release applauding the Claros report, issued shortly before the May 2003 annual shareholders meeting.
Claros was recommending shareholder support for several proxy resolutions seeking greater disclosure of ExxonMobil strategies to address the climate risk and respond to shareholder pressures to embrace renewable energy. The report’s author and head of Claros Consulting, Mark Mansley, observed ExxonMobil’s growing isolation, noting how much it was “out of step” in continuing to deny the climate change threat. The company was “relying on a ‘hope for the best’ strategy,” he said, that would be logical only if one expected the climate threat to suddenly “evaporate.” Ceres Executive Director Mindy Lubber said it best: “It doesn’t matter if you ‘believe in climate change’ if policies are emerging around the world that affect your industry. ExxonMobil’s continued denial of this reality demonstrates an impressive lack of sophistication in basic risk management.” Impressive, indeed.
January 2003 saw the opening of the 108th Congress. The U.S. Senate maintained a narrow Republican majority, and the November elections of 2002 had widened the Republican majority in the House. While tax credits were extended for a variety of alternative energy sources, no major climate legislation was adopted in the first session.
Meanwhile, scientists continued to churn out peer-reviewed publications in academic journals and to contribute to the scientific knowledge base on which we depend to gauge the threat. For example, well-known climate scientist Michael Mann continued the important work of studying and reporting global surface temperature trends. And, by 2003, more academics were interested in analyzing the negative influence of politics on our collective ability to adopt sensible public policy commensurate with what the science was telling us.
2004: Two new sentences appearing in ExxonMobil’s 2003 10-K filing, one which mentions measures it was taking to “minimize the impact” of its operations “on the air, water and ground” and the second which reports efforts to reduce emissions of oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, were carried forward to its Form 10-K for FY 2004. And, for the fourth time in a row, the risk factor mentioning “severe weather events” is included.
2004 was a presidential election year, and naturally, the Bush-Cheney team was determined to stay in office. Shortly before Election Day, in mid-October 2004, former Vice President Al Gore delivered a speech (full text) at Georgetown University castigating the Bush administration for epic failures on global warming. He attacked the administration for its duplicitousness regarding the alleged role national greed for Middle East oil played in our decision to invade Iraq in early 2003. Gore noted that among “documents obtained in discovery proceedings against the Cheney [Energy] Task Force by the odd combination of Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club” was found “a detailed map of Iraq showing…in great detail the location of every single oil deposit known to exist in the country.”
However, not everyone at the Pentagon was on board with Dick Cheney’s fixation on oil fields in the Middle East region. In early 2004, the Defense Department secretly commissioned a report assessing the climate risk from a national security standpoint. Authored by CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, Peter Schwartz, the report warned that, in a matter of two decades, climate change could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters, as reported by The Guardian. Concluding that the climate threat to global stability vastly eclipsed that of global terrorism, and that climate change should move beyond scientific debate to a national security concern, the report became a potential embarrassment for President Bush, who was still publicly denying the mere existence of climate change. Robert (Bob) Watson, who had moved on to become chief scientist for the World Bank after being pushed out of the IPCC, asked the key question: “Can Bush ignore the Pentagon?” Noting how difficult it would be for Bush and Cheney to dismiss the Pentagon’s findings, Watson continued: “After all, Bush’s single highest priority is national defense…If climate change is a threat to national security and the economy, then he has to act.”
“There are two groups the Bush Administration tend to listen to, the oil lobby and the Pentagon,” Watson noted. So, was the Bush administration listening more closely to the oil lobby, or the Pentagon?
The other big climate-related news for 2004 was the May release of the 20th Century Fox film, The Day After Tomorrow, starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal. Ridiculed for its apocalyptic message and ridiculous notion that the Earth could suddenly careen into a full-blown ice age in a matter of a few weeks, the film did have the benefit of raising public awareness of potentially abrupt changes in our climate system.
There were some notable climate-related publications in 2004:
- Jared Diamond published his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
- Ross Gelbspan authored Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis — and What You Can Do to Avert Disaster
- In April 2004 James Gustave Speth released his book Red Sky at Morning. America and the Crisis of the Global Environment
- In October 2004 Stanford-based climate scientist Steve Schneider published a scientific paper with the alarming title, “Abrupt Non-Linear Climate Change, Irreversibility and Surprise (abstract)
- In November 2004 the Pew Center on Global Climate Change (now the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions) released a report, Observed Impacts of Global Climate Change in the U.S., the twelfth in a series.
- A December issue of Science magazine included an article by Naomi Oreskes, “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” Oreskes had conducted a thorough literature review of the science, concluding: “a robust consensus that anthropogenic global climate change is occurring…despite claims sometimes made by some groups that there is not good evidence that Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities.”
The climate change threat was now being widely covered, and one would have had to work really hard to remain ignorant of the looming prospect of a world significantly disrupted by human-caused alterations in Earth’s climate system.
2005: Given the rich variety of attention paid to climate change over the previous decade, and positive actions to deal with climate change by other companies in the oil and gas industry, it is almost shocking to see that ExxonMobil’s official report to shareholders in its Form 10-K for FY 2005 continues to make no mention of climate change, global warming, or carbon dioxide emissions. As was seemingly the general rule, language from the previous year’s report was carried forward, so, under Risks: Industry and Economic Factors, we see the same two sentences: “Throughout ExxonMobil’s businesses, new and ongoing measures are taken to prevent and minimize the impact of our operations on the air, water and ground. This includes a significant investment in refining technology to manufacture low-sulfur motor fuels and projects to reduce nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide emissions.” And, for now the fifth year in a row, we see the same risk factor about the weather: “weather, including seasonal patterns that affect energy demand and severe weather events that can disrupt operations.”
The Beginnings of Climate Science Watch
In June 2005, Climate Science Watch was founded as a program of the Government Accountability Project, by federal climate science whistleblower and former GAP client Rick Piltz.
Piltz had abruptly left his 10-year stint at the USGCRP Coordinating Office in March, resigning his post after witnessing multiple instances of politically-motivated tampering of official White House documents addressing the current state of our scientific understanding of global climate change and potential impacts.
“I believe the overarching problem is that the [George W. Bush] Administration…does not want and has acted to impede forthright communication of the state of climate science and its implication for society,” he wrote in his formal letter of resignation.
Piltz also penned a lengthy critique for the interagency leadership of the nation’s climate research programs codified by the Global Change Research Act of 1990, the US Global Change Research Program, which had been renamed the Climate Change Science Program under Bush.
Piltz took issue with multiple, blatant attempts by Phil Cooney, who had been recruited to the White House Council on Environmental Quality from his post as a corporate attorney and chief lobbyist (not a scientist) at the American Petroleum Institute, to water down scientific conclusions in official government reports. With strategic and tactical foresight, Piltz had collected a significant body of hard evidence in the way of a paper trail demonstrating the White House’s not-so-hidden agenda to exaggerate the scientific uncertainty of climate change — the same disingenuous game ExxonMobil had been engaged in for the previous two decades. Piltz submitted copies of documents clearly showing Cooney’s hand-scribbled edits to reporter Andrew Revkin, then at The New York Times. The June 8 news story made page one (archived here), and was chronicled in one of Piltz’s first few posts on the new Climate Science Watch website. Two or three days later, we learned that Cooney had jumped ship as CEQ’s chief of staff and took a plush position at Exxon Mobil Corp. Was this jump evidence of a pre-arranged safety net the oil company had put in place for Cooney? It sure did have that appearance.
Piltz used his new platform at Climate Science Watch to offer a detailed explanation of the factors leading to his decision to leave the comfort and security of a federal government job in order to blow the whistle; he had decided to formally identify as a whistleblower and thus be afforded specific protections under whistleblower laws on the books at the time.
In Censorship and Secrecy: Politicizing the Climate Change Science Program, Piltz blasted the Bush-Cheney White House, and posted it on the same day The New York Times story was published:
“This administration has acted to impede honest communication of the state of climate science and the implications for society of global climate change. Politicization by the White House has fed back directly into the science program in such a way as to undermine the credibility and integrity of the program in its relationship to the research community, to program managers, to policymakers, and to the public interest.”
June 8, 2005 was a productive day for Piltz: he also chronicled the immediate White House response and various media reports (Piltz went on to direct Climate Science Watch for nearly ten years and to serve as an effective watchdog over the scientific integrity of climate science and policy before sadly passing away on October 18, 2014).
The 109th Congress was sworn in during January 2005. The Republican majority in both the House and Senate was strengthened following the election. Legislative proposals addressing various aspects of climate change were still being developed and introduced by a number of Members of Congress, but nothing passed into law. Notably, the Energy Policy Act was significantly amended in 2005 but did not contain any provisions relating to climate.
It was November 2005 when five oil executives, including outgoing ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, lied to a Congressional committee about their participation in the super-secret Energy Task Force chaired by VP Dick Cheney (see discussion above under section for 2001 and accompanying photograph). Sen. Frank Lautenberg had asked each witness the same question: “Did your company or any representatives in your companies participate in Vice President Cheney’s energy task force in 2001?” One by one, each responded in the negative. Eight U.S. Senators later submitted a formal request (as reported by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA)) to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for a Justice Department investigation.
The letter noted the public disclosure by The Washington Post of a leaked Secret Service document raising questions about the veracity of their claims and subsequent statements and letters issued by the CEOs attempting to “clarify” their answers, with some admitting participation after all. The Senators wanted to know if testimony provided at the November 9 hearing had violated the Federal “False Statements” statute, or any other applicable statutes. “If witnesses believe that the laws requiring truthful testimony before our committees will not be enforced, our hearings will lose their usefulness and the Senate’s ability to effectively legislate will be hampered,” the letter continued, concluding with: “You and your Department have a unique Constitutional duty to enforce laws that help protect the integrity of proceedings before the United States Senate. We strongly urge you to exercise this critical duty.” The five oil company executives never had to face legal consequences for what would have been outright perjury in a court of law. Now, most Congressional hearings require witnesses to “take the oath” to tell the truth, and nothing but, with more serious consequences for lying than existed back in 2005.
The other big climate and weather-related development of 2005, of course, was the landfall of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, slamming the Gulf Coast region with devastating force, taking lives and property, leaving a trail of death and destruction from which the region has still not completely recovered from. Were these powerful hurricanes, as the late Steve Schneider would put it, souped-up on “climate change steroids?” It is generally accepted now that warmer average global temperatures often cause hurricanes to pack a bigger punch.
Also of note, on June 20, 2005, Charles David Keeling passed away; his son, Ralph Keeling, had picked up the torch at Mauna Loa and has continued gathering measurements of tropospheric carbon dioxide concentrations ever since. Remarkably, this essential data record is continuous from 1958 to the present.
On the publications front, Rick Piltz had an article published in the academic journal Eos: “Toward a Second U.S. Climate Change Assessment.” (Over the years, Climate Science Watch has paid quite a bit of attention to the requirement for these periodic assessments of climate change impacts, and how well or how poorly this requirement has been satisfied). Known climate-deniers John Christy and Roy Spencer published a paper in Science titled: “Correcting Temperature Data Sets” (a likely attempt to dispute or discredit an upwards warming trend); meanwhile, former GAP client and renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen published an editorial in the academic journal Climatic Change with the provocative title, “A Slippery Slope: How Much Global Warming Constitutes ‘Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference’?” Chris Mooney (now a journalist with The Washington Post) published a book, The Republican War on Science.
2006: On January 1, 2006, Rex Tillerson took the reins of the Exxon Mobil Corporation, as CEO and Chairman of its Board of Directors; Lee Raymond had been forced to retire when he reached age 65.
Along with the change in leadership came many new changes in the 10-K filed for 2006. For the very first time since 1993, the year our review began, the words “risks of global climate change” appear. However, rather than admitting climate change and associated impacts could pose a risk to ExxonMobil’s operations, the matter is turned on its head. A brand new risk factor is added in a section titled “Political and Legal Factors” under “Risks” in the Form 10-K for FY 2006, and reads as follows: “laws and regulations related to environmental or energy security matters, including those addressing alternative energy sources and the risks of global climate change.” Notably, this “risk factor” appears among a half dozen other risk factors including “war or other international conflicts” and “civil unrest.”
In other words, it is not the array of impacts associated with climate change that ExxonMobil sees as a problem; rather, it is the threat of potential “laws and regulations” addressing climate and alternative (renewable) energy sources that ExxonMobil feels a fiduciary responsibility to warn its shareholders about. So, after being called out for being “out of step” with the rest of the industry, for being alone and isolated in its recalcitrance regarding the climate change issue, ExxonMobil decides to dig in even further.
The company also made some editorial changes to the risk factor regarding weather patterns; the new phrase now reads (additions in bold): “weather, including seasonal patterns that affect regional energy demand (such as the demand for heating oil or gas in winter) as well as severe weather events (such as hurricanes) that can disrupt supplies or interrupt the operation of ExxonMobil facilities.” It makes sense that ExxonMobil would specifically mention the winter months (and not the summer months) in discussing energy demand, as most air conditioners draw electrical power generated by coal, not oil or gas. It also makes sense that ExxonMobil would mention hurricanes, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, which disrupted energy supplies including those provided by ExxonMobil. However, the likely climate change component to the vast devastation wasn’t acknowledged in the slightest.
In 2006, Al Gore’s famous book, An Inconvenient Truth, was made into a movie of the same name. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the film was intended to alert average citizens of the “planetary emergency” of global warming, “before it’s too late.”
Dr. James Hansen, from his post at NASA, was still cranking out research papers. In 2006, he published “Dangerous Human-Made Interference with Climate: A GISS Model Study.” It was about at this time that Hansen began to use the word “dangerous” to describe human-caused perturbation of Earth’s climate system.
Another trend that began taking a stronger hold was the growing alliance between the “faith” community and the climate science and policy communities. Journalist Eli Kintisch wrote about this in “Evangelicals, Scientists Reach Common Ground on Climate Change” published in Science magazine.
And, academics were beginning to take a good, hard look at the troubled legacy of the George W. Bush Administration pertaining to the climate threat. For example, Seth Shulman published a 2006 book, Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration.
2007: The company’s Form 10-K for FY 2007 carries forward the brand new language introduced in 2006 under “Political and Legal Factors” in disclosing risk factors to its investors: “laws and regulations related to environmental or energy security matters, including those addressing alternative energy sources and the risks of global climate change.” Nowhere in the report is it acknowledged that the company’s operations could be adversely affected by climate change impacts. The slightly amended risk factor addressing “severe weather events” is repeated verbatim from the 2006 report: “weather, including seasonal patterns that affect regional energy demand (such as the demand for heating oil or gas in winter) as well as severe weather events (such as hurricanes) that can disrupt supplies or interrupt the operation of ExxonMobil facilities.” More frequent and intense hurricanes as the result of rising global surface temperatures and warmer oceans were some of the more frequently discussed climate change impacts in the media. One might argue that ExxonMobil’s specific mention of hurricanes as a risk factor could be interpreted as its own inadvertent admission that it was just as vulnerable to climate change impacts as the rest of us. But, that argument is a stretch, and ExxonMobil was still actively in the deny-delay-delude business.
Early 2007 saw the release of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), summarizing our current scientific understanding of changes already taking place in our climate system as a result of rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. The three working groups issued their voluminous reports: I) The Physical Science Basis, II) Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, and III) Mitigation of Climate Change — as well as the AR4 Synthesis Report.
The new IPCC findings were heavily covered by the worldwide media with predictions for global temperature increases, sea level rise, prolonged droughts, increased flooding, melting glaciers, and so on. The most important, newsworthy finding in the AR4 was that the panel had now concluded that it was at least 90% certain that human emissions of greenhouse gases, rather than natural variations, were warming the planet’s surface. The BBC and others quoted co-lead author Dr Susan Soloman: “We can be very confident that the net effect of human activity since 1750 has been one of warming,” addressing the delegates in Paris. The unequivocal nature of this conclusion made waves everywhere.
IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri, brought in to replace Robert Watson, expressed satisfaction with the results: “It is extremely encouraging in that the science has moved on from what was possible in the Third Assessment Report.” Pachauri also had a warning for the world: “If you see the extent to which human activities are influencing the climate system, the options for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions appear in a different light, because you can see what the costs of inaction are.” The New York Times characterized the new climate assessment report as “bleak and powerful.” John Holdren, later to become the White House science advisor for President Barack Obama, noted that the report “powerfully underscores the need for a massive effort to slow the pace of global climatic disruptions before intolerable consequences become inevitable.” Intolerable. Holdren is well known for quipping that there are only three solutions to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. In recent years, we certainly have observed “suffering” with myriad record floods in the Southeast and elsewhere, record droughts and wildfires in the West, severe snow storms, and other impacts long-predicted by the scientific community.
2008: It is evident from the 2008 10-K report submitted by ExxonMobil to the SEC that upper management had not read the IPCC AR4 reports or the vast amount of news coverage the new IPCC findings generated. The Form 10-K for FY 2008 simply repeats the language from 2007, including the two sentences about minimizing impacts on air, water, and the ground, and reducing emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides. The “severe weather” risk factor is also repeated, as is the backward-thinking inclusion of potential regulations intended to avert catastrophic, “intolerable” climate impacts as a risk to its operations, not the dangerous impacts themselves.
Meanwhile, academic papers addressing the very real nature of the climate change threat continued to flourish, Charles Keeling’s son Ralph published a paper in Science titled “Recording Earth’s Vital Signs,” and the media, for the most part, continued to cover climate change, with varying levels of competence and neutrality. Yet, the executives at ExxonMobil, the second largest corporation in the world at the time, holding the number two spot on the Fortune 500, with $460 trillion in revenue for 2008 and $45 trillion in profit, continued to bury their heads in the (increasingly hot) sand.
Part Three of our series will cover the years 2009 through 2015, and an assessment of tomorrow’s annual shareholders meeting.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy.