Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rex Tillerson Supposedly Shifted Exxon Mobil’s Climate Position.  Except He Really Didn’t.

The oil giant’s transformation on global warming was more rhetorical than anything else.

Rex Tillerson became chief executive of Exxon Mobil in 2006. (Credit: Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters) Click to Enlarge.
For decades, Exxon had funded far-right think tanks that seeded doubt over the scientific consensus on climate change.  Under Tillerson’s predecessor, Lee Raymond, the company had aligned itself heavily with Republicans, funneling 95 percent of its political donations to the party from 2000 to 2004, according to Steve Coll’s 2012 book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. Raymond took an aggressive stance against climate science:  “It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now,” he said in a 1997 speech.

Tillerson and Ken Cohen, Exxon’s PR chief and chair of its political action committee, wanted to broaden the company’s political reach.  One step was changing their messaging about climate change, moving away from the denial the company had been attacked for supporting. The Blue Ridge retreat was part of that effort, and brought together more than a dozen guests, which according to Coll’s account, included “two senior energy-policy analysts from the Brookings Institution, a human rights activist at Freedom House, climate specialists, business ethics professors, socially responsible investors, and religious activists.”

As Coll wrote, “Tillerson’s own views about climate science were not greatly different from Lee Raymond’s,” though Tillerson “did not claim or wish to project the same sort of independent scientific expertise that Raymond had offered about climate science.”  But Tillerson did see that the company needed to reposition itself.

“All they were saying they were going to do is simply acknowledge that it might exist, as opposed to saying it does not exist,” Jennifer Bremer, an economic development consultant who attended the meeting as a guest, told The Huffington Post.  Bremer said Exxon executives had called the retreat so the attendees could give them some advice, not so they could dictate the company’s new policy.

“You don’t just bring in a couple of hippies and start discussing internal deliberations,” Bremer added.  “Not if you’re Exxon.”
The company announced its first big investment in biofuels two years later, vowing to spend $600 million on research into algae-based transportation fuels.  In 2015, the firm backed the historic climate agreement reached in Paris, a stance it reiterated four days before this year’s election.

Tillerson, who President-elect Donald Trump has now nominated as his secretary of state, has gotten a lot of credit for Exxon’s shift away from climate denial.  But even as Exxon learned to talk the talk, the $378 billion company has failed to walk the walk.

Tillerson “brought a more clever approach, a more PR-savvy approach, to climate at Exxon, but the company really didn’t change its stripes much,” said Kert Davies, who leads the Climate Investigations Center and was the creator of ExxonSecrets, a Greenpeace program tracking the company’s climate denial.  “They managed to drop this campaign of using surrogates, scale that back enough that it took the pressure off.”

In June 2009, the House passed a bill to set up a cap-and-trade system limiting carbon emissions.  But that legislation failed to gain traction in the Senate.  Exxon undertook an aggressive lobbying campaign that year, spending $27.4 million ― more than the entire environmental lobby combined, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The American Petroleum Institute ― of which Exxon Mobil is a member ― launched its own PR campaign against the legislation.
But even as recently as last year, Exxon continued to fund organizations that deny or downplay climate science, and proposed solutions to global warming.  In 2015 the company spent nearly $2 million on more than a dozen such think tanks and advocacy groups, according to data compiled by Greenpeace and vetted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  That list ranges from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest industry association, to more radical groups, such as The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, which has called global warming “nothing more than an educated guess,” and the Mountain States Legal Fund, which once described itself as the “litigation arm” of an “anti-environmental” movement.

And unlike many of its industry rivals, Exxon has failed to invest seriously in renewable energy. The company ranked below all of its U.S. and European competitors on reducing emissions and issuing corporate guidance on the risk posed by climate change, according to a November report from the British shareholder advocacy group CDP.

Tillerson has openly mocked the clean-energy industry for years, joking once that he wasn’t “really against renewables” because wind turbine operators bought Exxon’s oil as a lubricant. “The more windmills are built, the more oil we sell,” he said.  At a May 2015 shareholders meeting, Tillerson said he hadn’t invested in renewables because “we choose not to lose money.”
“Tillerson is using half-truths to cover up decades of lies,” Jamie Henn, a spokesman for the environmental group 350.org, told HuffPost.  “Saying climate change is real doesn’t absolve you from continuing to fund climate denial.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the world’s largest oil company is good at greenwashing ― they spend more money on it than they do on renewable energy development.”

Read more at Rex Tillerson Supposedly Shifted Exxon Mobil’s Climate Position.  Except He Really Didn’t.

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