ExxonMobil's Climate Misinformation May Finally Come with a Cost
Updated: Jan 7
By Sadie F.
ExxonMobil ran glossy ads during the World Series with catching phrases like, “Plants capture CO2 what if other kinds of plants captured it too” promoting their investment in carbon capture and biofuels. However, their relationship with climate science is more adverse than meets the eye. They have not just known, but extensively researched climate change starting in the 1970s, and despite the research, they started a misinformation campaign that set back the fight against climate change to where we are now. Ever since InsideClimate News and then later the Los Angeles Times broke the story about how much Exxon knew about climate change, some state attorneys general began investigations and lawsuits into their shady business.
InsideClimate News’ and the LA Times’ series published in 2015 on Exxon, now ExxonMobil, revealed that they knew about the “catastrophic” effects of climate change 40 years ago. Starting in the late 1970s, Exxon started pouring resources into climate research, with a peak annual research budget of $300 million, to try and analyze the impacts of greenhouse gases, what they dubbed the greenhouse effect. They were on the vanguard of climate research, partnering with universities and the energy department. By 1982 they had accurate computer models that could predict how the earth would react to various levels of carbon dioxide.
Gradually as the research became more conclusive, executives realized the dangers that their research could pose to their plans to create synthetic fuels from coal, tar sands, and oil shales, and the danger that policymakers could pose to their bottom line.
There was a heatwave and drought across North America in 1988 that caused public concern around climate change. Climate scientists testified in front of Congress, like NASA’s James Hansen who claimed that global warming had already started. The United Nations established the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change to investigate climate change. The world was on the cusp of a transformation that would require transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Exxon director of science and strategic development, Duane LeVine, laid out the science and the company’s position during a board meeting in 1989. He said that the “data confirm that greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere” and that “fossil fuels contribute the most.” However, he knew that the data could be dangerous. He explained to the board of directors that the world came together to fix the ozone hole over Antarctica by writing the Montreal Protocol to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and that had lead to regulations on refrigerant manufacturers, the major producer of CFCs.
With the growing public concern around global warming and policymakers starting to take legislative and regulatory steps, Exxon, rather than be a leader on climate regulation, decided to start a thorough misinformation campaign. in 1992 they joined the Global Climate Coalition, a group of fossil fuel companies working to discredit climate science and fight against regulation, and used the American Petroleum Institute to spread uncertainty around climate modeling and the science, which they themselves had researched.
Exxon’s shift away from the science was part of what Exxon executives called the “Exxon Position,” which was a plan to emphasize the uncertainty in the science and shift public opinion against environmental regulation.
They also put out newspaper ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal with headlines like, “Less heat, more light on climate change” and “Climate change: a degree of uncertainty.”
All these strategic steps to prevent regulation on big oil sowed the seeds of climate denialism and set back positive changes to the point we are today.
In 2015, when the story broke, and 2016, Massachusetts, New York, and the US Virgin Islands started investigations into ExxonMobil’s knowledge of climate science and their campaign around its “uncertainty”. According to InsideClimate News, as soon as New York and the Virgin Islands issued their first subpoenas, ExxonMobil fought back. They sued the Virgin Islands to block the enforcement of their subpoena and within three months of the first subpoena, they shut down the investigation. They sued Massachusetts claiming that the investigation was politically motivated. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy said that “Exxon has fought us every step of the way.”
Only now are the lawsuits in New York and Massachusetts coming to fruition. According to the New York Times, New York’s Attorney General sued ExxonMobil for knowingly underestimating the costs of climate regulation, not factoring in projected carbon emissions and lying about it to investors. The case when to court this October and hinges on the claim that Exxon kept secret financial records where they underestimated the cost of climate regulation and, according to the Attorney General’s office, cost investors up to $1.6 billion.
Only two days after the case in New York went to trial, Healey notified ExxonMobil that she is suing under consumer protection law because she claims, they lied to consumers and investors about the effects of their oil and how it affects climate change, as reported by Bloomberg. Healy alleges that ExxonMobil labeled its fuel “green” and better for the environment in a way that was “deeply misleading”.
Big oil companies like ExxonMobil have negatively shaped the climate conversation and holding them accountable is the first step toward weaning the world off oil. Understanding the deceptions of ExxonMobil when you see one of their ads on TV or when you pass an ExxonMobil gas station is also important. Accountability is the first step, the next is reducing our reliance on oil in the first place.