Oil and Gas Companies Knew in 1970’s that Continuing to Burn Fossil Fuels Would Lead to a Warmer Planet – Kept Results Secret and Paid Others to Show Otherwise
2015, the hottest on record, was also the year ExxonMobil was caught in a more than three-decade lie. Internal documents revealed Exxon knew that fossil fuels cause global warming in the 1970s, but hid that information from the public. Now it turns out nearly every major U.S. and multinational oil and gas company was likely aware of the impact of fossil fuels on climate change at the same time as Exxon.
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On this last day of the year, 2015 will be remembered as a pivotal one for the environment—the warmest year on record. In only the last few days, we’ve seen an historic storm hurtling toward the North Pole, threatening to warm temperatures by more than 50 degrees above average there, while in South America a massive drought has fueled wildfires across Colombia, which has issued a red alert for more than 80 percent of the country, and at least 24 people have died in Missouri and surrounding states amidst the worst flooding in two decades, while rare tornadoes killed 11 people in Texas over the weekend. And that’s only in the last five days.
The year 2015 ended with the U.N. climate treaty in Paris. It will also be remembered as the year ExxonMobil, one of the corporations with major responsibility for climate change, was caught in a more than three-decade lie. Exposés by the Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed how Exxon concealed its own conclusions that fossil fuels cause global warming, alters the climate and melt the Arctic. Exxon knew about climate change as early as 1977. But instead of taking action, the oil giant lied to the public and funded bogus climate denial—paid for by the billions it made from practices it knew were harming the planet.
Now a new investigation reveals that in the oil industry, Exxon was not the only one with something to hide. InsideClimate News reports nearly every major U.S. and multinational oil and gas company was likely aware of the impact of fossil fuels on climate change as early as the late ’70s. From ’79 to ’83, the oil and gas industry trade group American Petroleum Institute ran a task force to monitor and share climate research. The group’s members included senior scientists and engineers from not only Exxon, but also Amoco, Phillips, Mobil, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio and Standard Oil of California, as well as Gulf Oil, the predecessor to Chevron. Internal documents show that as early as 1979 the task force knew carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was rising steadily. The task force even briefly considered researching how to introduce a new energy source into the global market, given the research about fossil fuels’ impact on global warming. But in 1983, the task force was disbanded, and by the late ’90s, the American Petroleum Institute had launched a campaign to oppose the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted by many countries to cut fossil fuel emissions, but was never ratified by the United States.
The Exxon revelations prompted the opening of a criminal probe in New York over whether the oil company lied to the public and its investors. Exxon’s climate deception has also sparked calls for a federal probe similar to the one that led to a racketeering conviction of Big Tobacco for hiding the dangers of smoking. With these new revelations [about] Exxon’s oil industry peers, could more companies be targeted for investigation?
Neela Banerjee is a Washington-based reporter with InsideClimate News. In response to her article: “Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too.”, Banerjee answers questions from Amy Goodman of Democracy NOW!:
AMY GOODMAN: Neela, tell us just what you found.
NEELA BANERJEE: We found that as early as 1979, the oil industry—oil companies, through the American Petroleum Institute, wanted to explore the emerging science around rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And we saw this through documents that we found as part of our Exxon research. And through that, we also found the former API employee who was the director of the task force for those four years. He was—the task force was part of a broader air quality effort at API, and he filled out the picture for us, too, and that, you know, they wanted to follow the science, but that some were probably—were already doing their own modeling, though it was not as ambitious as what Exxon was doing at its site.
AMY GOODMAN: Neela, you spoke with James J. Nelson, the former director of the American Petroleum Institute’s task force on climate change, who left API in ’83. He described a shift that was taking place at the time: quote, “[API] took the environmental unit and put it into the political department, which was primarily lobbyists. They weren’t focused on doing research or on improving the oil industry’s impact on pollution. They were less interested in pushing the envelope of science and more interested in how to make it more advantageous politically or economically for the oil industry,” unquote. Expand on that.
NEELA BANERJEE: Right. And, you know, what Mr. Nelson said was that he didn’t have any issue with that. He thought that that was the right tack to take, because at that time, even though it was under the Reagan administration, the power of the EPA and regulators was growing, and so the industry felt that it was not being properly heard. And they were trying to introduce science, they were trying to get research done, they were trying to have their papers published in peer-reviewed journals. And, you know, his viewpoint, and that of the industry, was that they were—that they couldn’t get their voices heard, and they were worried about overregulation. So, rather than having scientists work on a task force and engage with policymakers, the best way to do this was to have lawyers and lobbyists, you know. And that’s how Mr. Nelson helped fill out the picture from the documents we had.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the late ’90s and look at the oil industry’s role in opposing the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted by many countries to cut fossil fuel emissions, but was never ratified by the United States. A draft action plan circulated by the American Petroleum Institute at the time read, quote, “Unless ‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto [Protocol] is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts,” they said. The American Petroleum Institute was part of a lobbying group called the Global Climate Coalition, which included Exxon and other companies. As you write in your article, Neela Banerjee, a 2001 briefing memo quotes a top State Department official thanking the GCC because Bush, quote, “rejected the Kyoto Protocol in part, based on input from you.” Explain what this memo said.
NEELA BANERJEE: This memo talked about how to influence the public—and, I think, policymakers and scientists, as well—about climate change. The interesting thing about the Global Climate Coalition, which was formed in 1989, so about a decade before this memo came out around 1998, is that they didn’t hew to a lot of the theories that climate deniers back, so, for example, that it’s sunspots or volcanoes or natural cycles. They just kept saying the science is uncertain, and it’s too uncertain to warrant drastic action on the kinds of energy we use, and economic—you know, economic ruptures because of that. So, they kept hammering away at the uncertainty, and then they came up with this communications plan to do the same. And, you know, the point that they were making, that this was unwarranted, that the science was uncertain, that we shouldn’t ratify Kyoto, I mean, it worked. It wasn’t just the GCC. I mean, there were policymakers who believed this, too. But, you know, we did not sign onto the Kyoto Protocol—or we didn’t ratify it, rather. And then, during the Bush administration, some of the key people involved in the Global Climate Coalition went on to administrative posts, top administrative posts, and worked to—some of them worked to censor science on climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from 1996, when then-Exxon CEO Lee Raymond spoke about global warming. He was also chair of the American Petroleum Institute from ’96 to ’97.
NEELA BANERJEE: Yes.
LEE RAYMOND: Proponents of the global warming theory say that higher levels of greenhouse gases are causing world temperatures to rise and that burning fossil fuels is the reason. But scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate. … Many scientists agree there’s ample time to better understand climate systems and consider policy options, so there’s simply no reason to take drastic action now.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Lee Raymond, chair of the American Petroleum Institute, that excerpt from a PBS Frontline documentary. Talk about the significance, Neela, of what he’s saying and what he actually knew.
NEELA BANERJEE: Right. So, Mr. Raymond encapsulates the talking points and the strategy of the fossil fuel industry then, and that is that the science is too uncertain to warrant drastic steps to cut emissions from fossil fuels. Now, this is at a time when the science was growing more certain, and this is, you know, nearly 20 years after Exxon’s top management was told by its scientists that CO2 levels were rising, that they could drive climate change, and that the main—you know, that the main driver of higher CO2 levels was the use of fossil fuels. So, Mr. Raymond was not part of that group in 1977 that heard that, but later on, you know, scientists at Exxon continued to tell top management about CO2 and the link to fossil fuels through the ’80s, and from what we saw in the documents and the people we spoke to, Mr. Raymond was briefed on that. Now, whether he chose to believe that, why he chose to believe it or not, you know, I can’t—I can’t tell you. But we’re pretty certain he was at least exposed to the science and told about these connections by Exxon scientists.
AMY GOODMAN: Neela, can you talk about the impact of your first huge exposé about what Exxon knew, when it knew it and what it covered up, how Exxon has responded, right up to challenging the president of Columbia University, because Columbia journalism students were involved in the investigation?
NEELA BANERJEE: Well, Exxon has said, very broadly, that the reporting is inaccurate, that we’re cherry-picking, and that they’ve never stopped doing climate research. And the issue—their talking points basically don’t address the main thrust of our stories and the stories done by Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that were published in the Los Angeles Times. None of us said that Exxon stopped doing climate research—they did not. And Exxon, yes, continued to do climate research. What Exxon has not really responded to is why, despite the research that it did through the ’70s and ’80s, and really continued doing, though on a much less ambitious scale, through the ’90s, that they took a policy position that cast enormous doubt on climate science. The closest they’ve come to responding to that is to say, “Well, you know, our policy positions and what our scientists do are different things,” which—you know, which is interesting. It makes you wonder, you know, how much science informs other decisions that they take. So that’s been the Exxon position.
They also went after the reporters at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. They wrote to Columbia University and, you know, reminded Columbia about how much money they give Columbia, and said that what the Columbia journalism school project did was entirely irresponsible. Columbia responded and said—and basically, you know, they have a lot of emails and so on to show that Exxon’s assertions could not be backed up.
With us, as I’ve said, they’ve said very general things, but they can’t point—they’ve never challenged the authenticity of the documents that we’ve shared. And we digitized more than two dozen documents, so that people can see that we’re not cherry-picking. They can read the documents themselves. Exxon actually downloaded them and then uploaded them onto their website, so you can see our documents on Exxon’s website and ours. And they’ve never pointed out how we might be misinterpreting the documents in any specific way. So, it’s been a general response.
And as you’ve mentioned, you know, there’s been a response by lawmakers to launch investigations, and there’s been a subpoena that’s been issued for documents by the New York state attorney general. We don’t think that Exxon has delivered the documents yet. And, you know, we surmise that Exxon will probably fight this for as long as they can, because that’s been their strategy in other conflicts with prosecutors.