What Did Exxon Know and When Did It Know It?

Senator Howard Baker, Jr.

Senator Howard Baker, Jr.

The phrase, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” was popularized by the late Senator Howard Baker (R, Tennessee) during the Senate Watergate Committee’s investigation of the burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters. Oddly enough, it was intended to be a defensive question, to insulate President Richard Nixon from the growing scandal. As Presidential Counsel John Dean’s testimony and the White House tapes made clear that Nixon had orchestrated the burglary and the coverup, it became clear the President had known quite a lot very early.

It turns out that Exxon, like Nixon, knew quite a lot quite early about CO2 and its impact on climate, Exxon knew about the hazards of CO2 as much as five years before James Hansen raised the issue to a Senate Committee.

Lenny Bernstein is a chemical engineer and climate expert who spent 30 years at Exxon and Mobil. In an email released back in July of this year, he described a decision by Exxon not to develop a gas field because development would have released gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Exxon decided not to proceed with development of the Natuna field, located southeast Asia off Indonesia, because the CO2 discharge would have been the largest single point source for the gas on the planet. Exxon know, and acknowledged, it was bad for the atmosphere and potentially climate-altering.

What is stunning is that Exxon knew all this in 1981. Yet Exxon spent millions of dollars denying both increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and the existence of anthropogenic climate change. Exxon bought pseudo-science – “deliverables” – from fake scientists like Dr. Willie Soon. Specifically, $72,000 or so each year.

We know that because there is a document dump, out there on the Internet now for everyone to peruse. Exxon’s accountants documented each donation. There’s no question Exxon hired Willie Soon for “deliverables.” They sought evidence, even bogus evidence, to refute the science they had found themselves.

Alyssa Bernstein, the director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University, noted:

One thing that occurs to me is the behavior of the tobacco companies denying the connection between smoking and lung cancer for the sake of profits, but this is an order of magnitude greater moral offence, in my opinion, because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilisation, not to be melodramatic.

Lenny Bernstein, wrote in an email to Ohio University:

Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point.

The two Bernsteins aren’t related. But they are both right. It is The Merchants of Doubt all over again. And if you think multi-national corporations have a conscience beyond the bottom line, if you think they have any motivation beyond net profits, you are living in some kind of dream world.

Pretty clearly, on hard evidence and the words of one of its own scientists, Exxon knew and planned around the reality of anthropogenc climate change and planned around it. And a primary strategy was to purchase disseminate disinformation. To maximize profits.

And if you don’t believe WC, ask anyone who had damage claims coming out of the Exxon Valdez.