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Inside Exxon’s Great Climate Cover-Up: From Early Climate Change Researcher to Epic Climate Denier

StoryDecember 12, 2016
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With President-elect Donald Trump expected to nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, we look back at the investigative series by the Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization InsideClimate News, which revealed Exxon knew that fossil fuels cause global warming as early as the 1970s but hid that information from the public. We speak to Neela Banerjee of InsideClimate News and former Exxon scientist Ed Garvey.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: With President-elect Donald Trump expected to nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, we want to turn to an investigative series by the Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization InsideClimate News, which revealed Exxon knew that fossil fuels caused global warming as early as the ’70s but hid that information from the public. This is a clip from 2015 from the PBS series Frontline, which partnered with InsideClimate News on the project.

NEELA BANERJEE: We found the trail of documents that go back to 1977. Exxon knew carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere, that combustion of fossil fuel is driving it, and that this posed a threat to Exxon. At that time, Exxon understood very quickly that governments would probably take action to reduce fossil fuel consumption. They’re smart people, great scientists, and they saw the writing on the wall.

NARRATION: One Exxon research project outfitted an oil tanker with equipment to measure CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the ocean.

ED GARVEY: We were collecting data, the southern Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the western Indian Ocean. Basically every hour, we would get several measurements. So we had—I called it a data monster.

NARRATION: Today Exxon says the study had nothing to do with CO2 emissions. But scientists involved remember it differently.

ED GARVEY: We were committed. We were doing some serious science. It was a significant budget, I would say on the scale of a million dollars a year. I mean, that was a lot of money in 1979.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ed Garvey. From 1978 to '83, he was a researcher at Exxon, where he helped start the company's greenhouse gas research program. Well, last year, Nermeen Shaikh and I interviewed him, as well as Neela Banerjee of InsideClimate News. I began by asking Neela about the investigation by her news organization.

NEELA BANERJEE: We started looking into early climate change research and became aware that oil companies—at least initially, it was BP, but that was later, in the '90s—had their own scientists who were looking into this. We then found out from American scientists, government scientists, who had been involved in climate research in the ’80s that Exxon was involved. And what ended up happening was that I got a transcript of a 1979 congressional hearing on climate change and tried to see if somebody from Exxon was there, and I found a gentleman named Henry Shaw. Henry was Ed's boss and was the primary researcher with that tanker project. And through him and, you know, papers that he worked on, we found other names, we found documents in archives.

And slowly we amassed this picture of a company that was clearly aware of the science, of the emerging science of carbon dioxide research, and what the scientists were saying, that it was largely driven by fossil fuel emissions. And they were smart enough to know that this could mean some kind of policy response farther down the road. And so, to deal with that, they decided to take a constructive role, and that is to do really good science so that they would be taken seriously in any future policy discussion.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ed Garvey, can you talk about when you first arrived at Exxon and the research that you did there? It’s an extraordinary finding. 1977, that’s almost 40 years ago that Exxon itself was aware of the climate impact of fossil fuel.

ED GARVEY: I was hired in 1978 by Henry Shaw specifically to begin the tanker study. He hired me explicitly—directly out of school. I was a 22-year-old chemical engineer, but he hired me directly out of school to begin to engineer, if you would, and design a system that could work on an oil tanker to study oceanic levels of CO2. The idea was to study what the ocean was doing in response to the atmosphere, so we could figure out where CO2 from fossil fuels was ending up.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you find?

ED GARVEY: Well, we didn’t get that far along in terms of the data analysis. I mean, ultimately, we found—we estimated the amount of CO2 that was coming out of the oceans in the Equator. My thesis adviser at the time, Taro Takahashi, used that data, along with others, other data, to estimate the amount of absorption by the ocean in the poles, amount of degassing in the equatorial area. And together, he was able to estimate the carbon balance, if you would, around the ocean, the atmosphere and the biosphere.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But why was Exxon—from what you understand, why was Exxon interested in doing this research then?

ED GARVEY: It was very much a—they saw it as a leadership role, in many respects. The goal was that if Exxon—given the importance of the problem, Exxon wanted to be at the table in terms of the discussion. The best way to be considered viable in terms of your opinion at the table was to be doing real research. And in fact, we linked up with some of the best researchers in the world at the time regarding CO2 and the global carbon cycle.

AMY GOODMAN: You were working with Columbia University?

ED GARVEY: That’s right, as well—

AMY GOODMAN: When—yes, go ahead.

ED GARVEY: As well as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you start to feel a change in attitude at Exxon about the work you were doing?

ED GARVEY: For me, it came very suddenly toward the end of my career there. It was gung ho for three-and-a-half years, and then the bottom fell out of the oil market, and it really changed. They just basically dropped the project. We had collected a lot of data, but hadn’t processed it to the point of understanding the information. We just had a lot of information. Columbia went on to process the data after my work there.

AMY GOODMAN: Neela Banerjee, can you talk about this turnaround, when Exxon stopped the study, what they started to understand, and how they tried to cover it up?

NEELA BANERJEE: Well, when Ed’s project was dropped, from the documents we have and, you know, talking to Ed, too, it was mainly because of financial reasons. Exxon did not stop its climate research. After it started the tanker project in '78, ’79, in 1980 it hired a lot of mathematicians to do climate modeling, because models were primitive and they were relying on other people's models and they wanted to do that in-house. So, even though the tanker project, which was relatively expensive, had ended, Exxon continued very good, rigorous, peer-reviewed climate research, mainly through climate modeling, from 1980 onward. And our documents go through 1986. And one does not notice the kind of attitude shift that appeared in the 1990s, of stalling action on climate change and so on, in that period. Exxon was still committed to doing really good science. It was just different from the tanker project. If that was empirical, this was modeling.

And then, you know, the first indication that I think all of us—not just InsideClimate News, but the world—have of Exxon’s attitude on climate change shifting was in 1989 when a group called the Global Climate Coalition was formed. And that was a group of fossil fuel companies, major manufacturers, Americans largely, that wanted to stall action on climate change. They saw that the U.N. was meeting and thinking about a policy response that countries should adopt to cut emissions of carbon dioxide. So, what happened in that '86-to-'89 period, we don’t know. You know, we can’t document a shift in thinking. There’s some speculation about the attitudes of the people who were in leadership then. They were different than the people who were in leadership in the '70s. But what we have is not an example of a cover-up—it's quite the opposite. What we have is an example of a company that used its resources as one of the biggest energy companies in the world to do really good research.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Neela Banerjee, could you say a little more about this Global Climate Coalition and what Exxon’s role within it came to be and how it’s impacted the kind of research that’s done on climate change?

NEELA BANERJEE: Well, the Global Climate Coalition, I mean, it sounds very green. I remember thinking, “Oh, this must be a group of companies that actually support action on climate change.” But it was led mainly by the auto—I mean, I’m sorry, by the oil and gas industry, but some of the other members were coal companies, auto companies and so on. And Exxon was probably the leader in the oil industry, working with the American Petroleum Institute, which is the main oil industry lobby.

And they didn’t take the approach that a lot of people who denied climate change did. And in fact, there’s in public circulation, long before we did this project, a primer that a scientist had written for members about how to talk about climate change. What he recommended was not to use the arguments that other climate deniers use, such as, you know, that it’s sunspots or natural cycles, but instead to focus on the uncertainty of the science and the models, just to hammer away at that.

AMY GOODMAN: Neela Banerjee of InsideClimate News and former Exxon scientist Ed Garvey, speaking on Democracy Now! last year. You can go to Democracy Now! for the full interview, democracynow.org. That investigation by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times led to a number of attorneys general announcing a historic effort to investigate Exxon and other oil companies for misleading the public about climate change.

And that does it for our broadcast. A very happy birthday to Igor Moreno.

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