Wall Street Journal Exposes Exxon Mobil’s “People Of Good Intent.”
Oil company’s CEO melts down—"it seems bad”—when reporters confront him with Exxon’s own confidential documents showing they secretly funded climate science denial.
7 minute read
This doesn’t happen often enough, but 20 years ago I had the opportunity to confront someone in person with a document I had discovered and was reporting on. A scientific consulting firm called The Weinberg Group had sent a multi-page letter to DuPont outlining a scientific and legal program to help them deny the dangers of PFOA, a class of chemicals that harm people and wildlife.
“Here’s the document,” I said, sliding it across the table to Matthew Weinberg, who had spent a week dodging my calls. By the time I met him in his office, I already knew that The Weinberg Group had done dirty tricks for several industries including tobacco and the makers of Agent Orange.
I then clicked on my mini recorder to capture Weinberg’s response. He didn’t say much, but I still remember seeing his eyes, damp with tears, as they jumped up from the document to gaze at me with hate.
Unfortunately, you don’t get enough of those moments in life. Here’s what usually happens: you email a bunch of questions for the story you’re writing and then sit around wondering what’s going on—would love to be a fly on the wall!—as your email bumps around inside the organization, gets reviewed by some lawyer as they hold a meeting to consider a response, before … they decide the safest course is to completely ignore you.
That’s why I was shocked reading Exxon CEO’s statement in the Wall Street Journal’s story that exposed Exxon Mobil’s secret funding of climate science denial. I don’t know what questions the Journal’s reporters sent to Darren Woods, but his quotes read like someone hit over the head with a baseball bat and then, still dazed, shoved in front of a camera.
To get a flavor for the type of questions the Journal would have sent Woods, here’s what the Journal reported, based on internal Exxon documents:
Its executives strategized over how to diminish concerns about warming temperatures, and they sought to muddle scientific findings that might hurt its oil-and-gas business, according to internal Exxon documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with former executives.
The documents reviewed by the Journal, which haven’t been previously reported … Exxon scientists supported research that questioned the findings of mainstream climate science, even after the company said it would stop funding think tanks and others that promoted climate-change denial.
As is so often the case in every industry, Exxon sought to dismiss some bad science by creating their own science to set the record straight—meaning, muddle up the facts.
Later in 2008, Gene Tunison, a manager of global regulatory affairs and research planning, said Exxon should direct a scientist to help the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s influential lobbying group, write a paper about climate science uncertainty.
“I support [Exxon] co-authoring a paper on uncertainty in measuring GHGs,” Tunison wrote in an email.
You can see that it seems bad, just from these few sections of the Journal’s story laying out how Exxon’s leaders lied to the public and investors. In fact, “it seems bad” is exactly what Woods told the Journal.
Let’s take a look at Woods’ statement in the Wall Street Journal and then break it down, sentence by sentence.
EXXON’S WOODS: I know how this information looks.
Everyone does. Your company looks like shit. Investors and members of Exxon’s board read the Wall Street Journal, you know that, right?
EXXON’S WOODS: When taken out of context, it seems bad.
Taken out of context? The hell are you talking about!?
EXXON’S WOODS: But having worked with some of these colleagues earlier in my career, I have the benefit of knowing they are people of good intent.
“People of good intent” sounds like an Exxon Mobil horror film, with creepy Anthony Hopkins starring as Darren Woods, the comic book villain torching the planet, and caught hiring scientists to say toddlers enjoy playing outside when it’s 120 degrees in August.
EXXON’S WOODS: None of these old emails and notes matter though.
Every lawyer suing Exxon Mobil for lying about climate change is laughing right now!
EXXON’S WOODS: We’re building an entire business dedicated to reducing emissions—both our own and others—and spending billions of dollars on solutions that have a real, sustainable impact.
Anyone who reads that Journal article knows you’re a goddam liar.
It’s not only that Woods’ “it seems bad” statement seems really awful, it’s that Woods statement contradicts Exxon’s prior statements denying that they engaged in climate denial—the very activity Woods now confirms happened, but is trying to downplay as “people of good intent.”
I know how this information looks
Back in 2015, Exxon Mobil sent a strident letter to Columbia University attacking professor Susanne Rust, who was the editor of Columbia University’s Energy & Environmental Reporting Project. As in the case of the Wall Street Journal, Rust had uncovered internal Exxon Mobil documents showing that the company lied about climate science.
Here’s a snippet of what Rust and her colleagues published in the Los Angeles Times:
How did one of the world’s largest oil companies, a leader in climate research, become one of its biggest public skeptics?
The answer, gleaned from a trove of archived company documents and the recollections of former employees, is that Exxon, now known as Exxon Mobil, feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome policies.
Duane LeVine, Exxon’s manager of science and strategy development, gave a primer to the company’s board of directors in 1989, noting that scientists generally agreed gases released by burning fossil fuels could raise global temperatures significantly by the middle of the 21st century — between 2.7 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit — causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise, “with generally negative consequences.”
Sounds remarkably similar to the recent Wall Street Journal piece, no?
But instead of admitting that “it seems bad” that Rust uncovered Exxon Mobil internal documents, the company went on a scorched earth campaign, targeting Rust for daring to publish excerpts of Exxon’s own documents, and sending an inflammatory, bullying letter to Columbia University’s president.
The Wall Street Journal relied on a completely different set of documents than Rust did back in 2015, but the story is pretty much the same: Exxon knew burning fossil fuels was heating up the atmosphere and then lied about it. Yet Exxon accused Rust of “cherry picked—and distorted statements”
This isn’t the only example of Exxon lying about what they knew, and lying some more when caught. After reading the stories Rust helped to produce for the Los Angeles Times, two members of Congress wrote to the Attorney General saying that they were concerned Exxon Mobil’s deceit was similar to the tobacco companies’ decades long denial of the dangers of smoking. In the letter, they asked the Department of Justice to look into a number of statutes concerning Exxon’s actions, including truth in advertising and racketeering laws.
When asked to comment, Exxon Mobil spokesperson Richard Keil told the Guardian, “This is complete bullshit. We have a 30 year continuous uninterrupted history of researching climate change and the LA Times for whatever reason chose to ignore that fact.”
With the Wall Street Journal now confirming Susanne Rust’s 2015 investigation, it looks like Exxon Mobil and Richard Kiel are the ones who are “complete bullshit.”
One a final note of irony: before he began working for Exxon Mobil, Richard Keil was a journalist for the Associated Press and Bloomberg, where he spent decades reporting on the intersection of business and politics. While at Bloomberg, Kiel covered the 1997 global tobacco settlement, in which tobacco companies were discovered to have lied about the dangers of their products and colluded to hide these harms from the public.
These very same allegations confront Exxon today in a slew of lawsuits that Kiel has tried to protect the company from. History repeating itself.
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If you want to learn more about internal documents showing Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies hid from the public what they knew about climate change, take a look back at two interviews I did with Ben Franta, now a Senior Research Fellow in Climate Litigation at the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme.
In one example, Franta and I discussed a 1981 internal Exxon Mobil document, where one of their scientists warned the company that climate change could “indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”
In Their Own Words: The Dirty Dozen Documents of Big Oil’s Secret Climate Knowledge: Science historian Ben Franta unpacks some of the most critical documents exposing what the fossil fuel industry knew and when they knew it.
Part 2: The Dirty Dozen Documents of Big Oil’s Secret Climate Knowledge: Industry documents from the 1980s reveal how fossil fuel companies promoted climate denial and avoided action to limit catastrophic climate impacts.