The Exxon Mobil Corporation is being investigated by multiple state attorneys general (AGs) concerned that the company intentionally misled its shareholders regarding scientifically-established risks associated with climate change impacts – risks that not only endanger human health and the environment, but also threaten to devalue XOM shares. In the 1980s, when Exxon first began colluding with other fossil fuel interests to engage in an orchestrated, sustained deception and disinformation campaign designed to stymie regulatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions, the level of scientific uncertainty regarding the exact nature and severity of climate change impacts was greater than it is today. The modus operandi of the “global warming denial machine” has been to play up those inherent uncertainties while downplaying climate change impacts in order to dissuade policymakers and the public of the need to curtail our dependence on fossil fuels. After all: oil is money, and the corporate bottom line must be protected.
Currently, not only is the scientific underpinning of global climate disruption markedly more solid, the risks associated with ever-increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases now surpassing the 400 ppm mark have moved from the theoretical to the very real, and are being felt everywhere – including where ExxonMobil employees live, work, and conduct business. In this piece, we look at two rolling disasters: repeated, extreme flooding this year in Texas, where ExxonMobil is headquartered, and massive wildfires in California where the oil and gas giant also has major operations. Both are examples of climate change impacts long predicted by computer models and robust scientific research conducted globally; both exemplify the costly price tag that comes with failing to curtail carbon dioxide emissions. Tragically, this price tag includes loss of human life in addition to extensive property destruction, devastation of ecosystems and critical habitats, and more. All CEO Rex Tillerson needs to do to comprehend the dangers posed by our collective failure to cut carbon emissions and bring stability back to Earth’s climate system – a failure ExxonMobil has conspired to ensure – is to look outside his proverbial corporate window.
Climate Impacts Are Devastating Texas, Home to ExxonMobil Corp.
Prolonged droughts followed by deluges of rain: this is the climate future scientists have been predicting for Texas and the Great Plains for some time now. ExxonMobil has two enormous campuses in Texas: one in Irving just outside Dallas-Fort Worth, established as corporate headquarters in 1989 after the company moved from its long-held perch in New York City; the other, a much newer campus in The Woodlands, a wealthy neighborhood just outside Houston.
On April 15 of this year, the National Weather Service predicted a full week of heavy rains and flooding for the City of Houston and surrounding areas; residents braced themselves for what promised to be major flood disaster similar to the one the city had suffered less than a year before with the Memorial Day floods of 2015. Texans and Oklahomans were still smarting from the extensive damage and multiple lives lost. The storm and subsequent flooding took 27 lives in the Lone Star state. Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency in 24 Texas counties in the spring of 2015 and called the storm the biggest in Texas history – and it was, at least at the time. On Monday, April 18, 2016, the torrential rains came, hitting a wide swath over Houston and outlying areas, breaking the records set just the year before.
Relative to other U.S. states, Texas is abysmally unprepared for flooding and several other climate change impacts – according to an eye-opening report published in November last year by Climate Central and ICF International, “States At Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card.” Texas got a big fat “F” – a failing grade –-for its overall preparedness for climate change impacts, including extreme heat, drought, fires, and flooding.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has also sharply criticized the troubling lack of preparedness for extreme flooding in Texas, citing climate projections warning that “Texans will increasingly live at the extremes, enduring long periods of drought and water scarcity, interspersed with episodes of intense storms that cause the kinds of flash flooding Texans have been enduring.” NRDC concludes that the state’s most recent disaster preparedness plan – a requirement imposed on states by FEMA as a condition for receiving federal disaster assistance – fails to consider how climate change impacts will affect the frequency and severity of “natural” disasters (such as flooding) now and into the future.
By April 2016, only a few improvements intended to save lives had been implemented in the city since the extensive flooding the year before. On May 4, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed a flood czar charged with “developing and implementing drainage and flooding strategies that will achieve the singular goal of mitigating the risk of flooding” in the city. It’s unclear what the new “flood czar” will be able to do to reduce the risks of flooding.
President Obama’s science advisor, Dr. John Holdren, often quips that there are only three options for dealing with climate change: mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions), adaptation (i.e., preparing for and improving our ability to deal with and tolerate impacts), and suffering. The latter requires no explanation and is what Texans are largely relegated to now, given the state’s abysmal and inexcusable failure to prepare adequately for a climate-disrupted future. Its governor, its AG, and most of its Congressional delegation are all active climate deniers.
Heavy rains pummeled Houston on April 18, which turned out to be the second wettest calendar day on record for official reporting stations in Houston, dating all the way back to 1888. Over the course of one day, nearly 10 inches of rain fell on Bush Intercontinental Airport. The National Weather Service called the floods “historic.”
On April 19, ExxonMobil management sent all of its employees home early from the corporation’s brand new 385-acre campus in The Woodlands, just north of Houston. It was a precautionary measure; presumably, management was worried that nearby Spring Creek would overflow its banks and flood roads surrounding the campus, preventing employees from leaving or entering. Extreme flooding had already taken the lives of six people, all of whom had died trapped inside vehicles on inundated roads and highways. Over one thousand water rescues had taken place; it simply wasn’t safe to be traveling in Southeastern Texas. The so-called “tax day” storm killed eight people in all, devastated thousands of homes, and led Governor Abbott to make formal disaster proclamations in nine counties. In Harris County alone, more than 1,800 high-water rescues were conducted; and one survey found that 744 homes and 400 apartments were inundated with water.
Despite the early dismissal, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson made no public statement about the extensive, deadly flooding. Just days before, on April 13, a cadre of attorneys for the company petitioned a state court to block a subpoena issued by Virgin Islands AG Claude Earl Walker, demanding documents from the corporation relating to its investigation of ExxonMobil’s role in the climate science denial campaign, citing the corporation’s right to free speech and due process (Ultimately, ExxonMobil got its way; Walker agreed to withdraw the subpoena on June 29 after an ugly legal battle). Shortly after the deadly April floods, Tillerson traveled to Washington, D.C. on May 5 to accept the 2016 United States Energy Award at the U.S. Energy Association annual meeting “in recognition of his outstanding efforts in advancing global energy initiatives.” It is doubtful that any of the initiatives he and ExxonMobil have been advancing globally incorporate carbon emissions reductions or protection of the global climate as an objective.
To What Extent Are These Recent Floods Indicative of Climate Change?
While floods have always been a component of natural variation in precipitation and in Earth’s climate system, here are a few facts and expert views to consider:
- As global temperatures rise, warmer air tends to hold more water vapor than cooler air, resulting in greater precipitation in some areas.
- Heavy rains in Houston have become more frequent. Over the past 60-70 years, Houston has seen a 167 percent increase in the number of days it experiences precipitation exceeding the heaviest one percent of all local events.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) labeled the record-setting April mega-storm a “climate anomaly.”
- A U.S. government report published in 2013 by NOAA, Regional Climate Trends and Scenarios for the U.S. National Climate Assessment, warns that parts of Texas and the Great Plains region can expect up to a 30% increase in the number of extreme precipitation days (days receiving more than one inch of rain) by mid-century.
- Scientists at the Scripps Institution for Oceanography have found that in Texas, precipitation has already increased by 10% over the last century, with the increase in rainfall occurring in the eastern part of the state, and the western part of Texas more prone to prolonged drought.
The Deadly Memorial Day Weekend Floods of 2016
Less than one month after the April floods, another major storm event hit Texas; in this case, heavy rains inundated coastal areas around Corpus Christi with up to 15 inches of rain on May 15-16; the ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. is located right on Corpus Christi Bay. There are no press reports indicating to what extent, if any, the facility itself was affected, though its employees most certainly were.
Then, on Memorial Day weekend, Texas was once again slammed with even greater and more damaging rains and flooding than it had experienced in 2015 or even in the previous month. Severe, extensive flooding caused Governor Abbott to proclaim disasters in no fewer than 31 Texas counties. On May 26 alone, some places in Texas received over 16 inches of rain. By May 30, floods had taken the lives of six more Texans (again, most died in vehicles) and by June 3, the death toll had risen to 16, including nine Fort Hood soldiers who died after their military vehicle flipped over while crossing a flooded creek during a training exercise (see discussion below). The stereotypical Texas brag of always being the biggest at everything now applies to the human death toll as a result of flooding: 77 Texans have drowned in floodwaters over the past 18 months, according to The Weather Channel. This is many more deaths than in any other state, the next highest ranking state being West Virginia, which had 24. The death toll in most states is in the single digits, and many have none.
The Brazos River rose to the highest level ever recorded – over 54 feet in Fort Bend County –and just two years after it had run dry in places after prolonged drought. In coastal Brazoria County, where the Brazos empties into the Gulf of Mexico, more than 2,500 inmates from two prisons had to be evacuated. A 10-year old boy went missing after he was swept into the raging flow of the river on May 28; his body was found days later. The photo in the paragraph above shows homes along the banks of the river experiencing total inundation on Saturday, June 4, 2016. The photo here – showing flooding surrounding the Brazos River – was taken May 29 by astronaut Terry Virts during a flight in a T-38.
The severe weather and floods that hit Texas and Oklahoma during May 2015 will likely result in $3 billion in economic losses and cost insurers more than $1 billion, according to an analysis by London-based Impact Forecasting and reported by the newsletter Hydroworld.
Elected officials in Texas are concerned about climate change, but not in the way one would think following these climate-induced weather extremes pummeling the state. About a week before the Memorial Day floods began, Texas AG Ken Paxton sided with ExxonMobil in asking a state judge to quash the subpoena issued by the Virgin Islands AG, in an effort to end this “ridiculous investigation” which he referred to as a “fishing expedition… to punish Exxon for daring to hold an opinion on climate change that differs from that of radical environmentalists.” His views are shared by the Texas Governor, who is on record as rejecting wholesale all of mainstream climate science and attempting to directly intervene in EPA’s Clean Power Plan, calling it “federal overreach.”
The Death Toll: Is it fair to call these casualties of climate change?
The Texas Memorial Day floods tragically took the lives of 16 people, nine of whom were young, enlisted soldiers in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Hood. Twelve soldiers were out on a training exercise near the edge of the base, learning how to use a 2.5 ton Light Medium Tactical Vehicle; the vehicle suddenly overturned on a creek-crossing as it encountered a rush of water, trapping two inside whose bodies were found on June 2. Three more bodies were recovered downstream hours later, and four more in the waters on June 3. Three lucky survivors checked out of the hospital on June 3. Fort Hood spokesman Chris Haug provided the following statements to reporters:
“It was a situation where the rain had come, the water was rising quickly and we were in the process, at the moment of the event, of closing the roads. This was a tactical vehicle and at the time they were in a proper place for what they were training…. It’s just an unfortunate accident that occurred quickly.”
Just an unfortunate accident that occurred quickly? There is another way to interpret what happened. By June 2, the region had been deluged by torrential rains for nearly a week, flood warnings were in effect everywhere, and roads were closing. It is the very nature of floodwaters to occur quickly and sometimes unexpectedly. Were the soldiers truly in the “proper place” given the known or at least knowable dangers?
Another spokesperson, Tyler Broadway, is quoted in an article, Fatal Fort Hood Accident Raises Questions about Training, that, at the time of the incident, the 12 soldiers were driving on a dirt road parallel to a paved road that the base had already closed in response to the flooding. Moreover, the road the soldiers were traveling on hadn’t been marked as a low-water crossing, and thus thought not to be prone to flooding.
A crash course on climate change impacts would have benefited those in charge of training at Fort Hood, and potentially could have prevented these nine deaths. The phrase “thought not to be prone to flooding” captures the very essence of a climate-disrupted world. The weather patterns of the present no longer represent those of the past. Conditions that may have held true for centuries are no longer a reliable predictor of future conditions. The U.S. Army should know this, and should be basing decisions regarding its personnel on these factors – especially decisions that put its own enlisted men and women in harm’s way.
This needless loss of life was tragic, indeed. The names and some personal details were reported June 5. Eleven of the soldiers were in their early twenties, one was just 19 years old. Presumably, their trainer was 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Miguel Angel Colon-Vazquez, pictured below with his wife. After becoming actively enrolled in the U.S. Army in 2003, Staff Sgt. Colon-Vazquez deployed four separate times to Iraq and Afghanistan, from 2005 to 2014, logging in 40 months of combat overall. This decorated soldier had survived a decade of dangerous deployments to be tragically taken by a preventable accident. He is survived by his wife and four children, and a GoFundMe page has been established to gather much-needed support for his family.
Or, consider the young life of 20 year-old Private Eddy Rae’Laurin Gates, who had been in the Army for six short months before being swept away in the turbulent waters around Fort Hood. Gates was from North Charleston, South Carolina, where she was buried with full military honors. Her family describes her as a selfless, full-of-life, and passionate individual, who was dedicated to serving her country. A high school homecoming queen, Gates was popular and friendly, outgoing and happy.
There are lessons to be learned here. Michael Negard, spokesman for the Army’s Combat Readiness Center, went on record declaring: “In this case, we see that there can be something learned in the way of future prevention.” While we could not agree more, this is a gross understatement. The Combat Readiness Center will do its own investigation in addition to others already underway. The U.S. Army should take a very close look at the role climate change played in the weather conditions at the base, and begin to appropriately factor climate preparedness into its training and other missions.
Could Texas Governor, and climate science denier, Greg Abbott possibly be on his way to acknowledging the dangers imposed by a climate-disrupted world? This quote gives us some hope: “I’ve heard stories of far too many people who think they are able to drive through water only to be washed away. If that can happen to trained soldiers, it can also happen to untrained civilians. It demonstrates the need of everyone to understand the power of rising water and the danger it can pose to life.” The need to understand is indeed the core problem.
Wildfires in California come dangerously close to ExxonMobil oil and gas facility
On June 16, a “Sherpa” wildfire licked the cement pads surrounding an ExxonMobil oil and gas processing plant near Las Flores Canyon, California where 278,000 barrels of crude oil were stored at the time.
Stating the obvious – that oil and fire don’t mix well – the Santa Barbara Independent reported that the flames “bumped” the Santa Ynez Unit, a refinery that typically processes nearly 150 thousand barrels a day.
Forced evacuations led ExxonMobil to evacuate only nonessential personnel and to leave some employees behind to help fight the fire.
Santa Barbara county officials have long been concerned about the storage of oil at this facility given the area’s vulnerability to wildfires and the environmentally sensitive conditions there. Prolonged drought and higher temperatures – both well-predicted climate impacts for decades – are now causing unprecedented wildfires: 2016 is shaping up to be another “epic fire season” for California and western states. The subject of wildfires would require another post entirely, but the point for our current purpose is clear: our world is now changed due to climate change and these changes must be acknowledged if they are ever going to be managed, or even survived.
Why Can’t ExxonMobil Connect the Dots?
Chronic, systemic failures in public policy addressing both the need to slash carbon emissions as a result of fossil fuel combustion and to “adapt” and prepare for unavoidable climate change impacts can be attributed in large part to the multi-decadal denial and disinformation campaign directed and heavily funded by ExxonMobil. At some point, the oil company’s leadership must see that the dangerous risks associated with out-of-control global warming and abrupt changes in our climate system are as bad for its own bottom line as they are for the rest of us. How long will it take before this dinosaur wakes up and smells the climate change coffee? When will Exxon finally acknowledge what it has all too likely known for far too long – climate change is real and needs to be addressed.
Whether or not this head-in-the-sand corporation is charged and found guilty of fraud by any number of state AGs for its immoral deception, one thing is clear: ExxonMobil, if it hasn’t already, will eventually be found guilty in the court of public opinion.
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.