Many environmentalists believe that the oil and gas major Exxon, now known as Exxon Mobil Corp., is on the wrong side of history when it comes to climate change. Two new investigations into the company’s early history of climate research have deepened the antagonism toward the company.
In recent weeks, these probes into the corporation’s early climate research have painted a picture of a behemoth that not only led path-breaking research on climate, but in the process became aware of the financial risks to its own business from climate change decades ago. Then, it decided to take measures to protect its business interests while publicly claiming that uncertainty about climate change was too great to warrant immediate action.
"Almost uniquely, Exxon could have short-circuited 25 years of faux debate. Had they merely acknowledged that the scientists spreading the alarm were right, the world could have gotten to work," said Bill McKibben, one of the more vocal critics of Exxon’s behavior. The investigations even generated a Twitter hashtag: #Exxonknew.
In recent years, media attention focused on the company’s vociferous doubts about the emerging climate science, but the earlier chapter of its research history has remained buried till now. It came to light because of the efforts of two groups of highly qualified and competitive groups of journalists who had the patience to piece together the oil giant’s outside messaging and its trail of conflicting internal research.
On Thursday, InsideClimate News (ICN), an independent nonprofit news organization, published the last dispatch in its six-part series "Exxon: The Road Not Taken." The next day, the Los Angeles Times, in collaboration with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, published the second installment in their series about Exxon that is anchored around the same premise. The first piece of the Times-Columbia series was posted Oct. 9. It explored Exxon’s climate research in the Arctic and detailed how it kept both the public and its own shareholders in the dark about the perceived business threat from climate change.
The Columbia project was a yearlong excavation of hundreds of documents housed in university archives and other institutions of public record, review of research papers, and interviews with experts and former employees at Exxon. The reporting, mostly carried out by recent graduates of the journalism school, is led by Susanne Rust, an investigative journalist who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2009 for her reporting on the presence of bisphenol A, an industrial chemical also known as BPA, in everyday household items.
Among the professors overseeing the project is the dean of Columbia Journalism School, Steve Coll, a two-time Pulitzer winner who is also the author of "Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power."
As early as 2012, Coll suggested that there was a backstory to Exxon’s public position on climate change. In an interview with PBS’s "Frontline," he observed: "In time, perhaps we will understand what the internal reaction among scientists within Exxon Mobil was to this campaigning, because there’s some evidence that within Exxon Mobil, there was study going on about how global warming could affect oil discovery, for example."
He later suggested in the same interview that the company could become the target of litigation by victims of climate change, which would uncover internal records about what its own scientists were telling the company about climate change.
Columbia’s probe begins in the fall of 2014
No major litigation of that nature was brought against Exxon. However, inspired by Coll’s findings, Columbia Journalism School launched a reporting project in the fall of 2014 to investigate exactly this aspect of Exxon’s research. "Much of the inspiration was from his previous reporting," Rust said, explaining why the school started to look into Exxon. "But of course, a year into it, the story ideas, lines of investigation, have evolved as information has come in."
InsideClimate News is a small, Brooklyn-based outfit of about a dozen journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2013. It is funded in part by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Ford Foundation and the Marisla Foundation, and ICN launched its own project earlier this year. Its team stumbled upon the story, according to Neela Banerjee, one of the key reporters on the project. As she described it, it was "almost by accident." Banerjee is a veteran environment reporter who has spent many years at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where she covered environment and energy before joining ICN in December 2014.
"At the beginning of the year, we were looking into early climate research by academics and the government," she said. "In the process, speaking to some scientists, someone mentioned, I can’t remember who, I wasn’t involved in the project then, that Exxon had scientists who had submitted peer-reviewed papers in the early 1980s."
The big break for her came in the form of a 1979 congressional hearing transcript. "I got, unrelated to the project, a transcript of a 1979 congressional hearing on climate change," Banerjee said, "As a lark, I was just sitting there, procrastinating or something, and I decided to search the PDF to see if someone from Exxon was there, too," she said. As luck would have it, she hit a name: Henry Shaw.
Shaw, it turned out, was heading an in-house effort at Exxon to measure carbon dioxide concentrations in seawater and the atmosphere. According to part of his biography that is available on the ICN website, he was collaborating with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory on this project that involved equipping one of Exxon’s oil tankers with instruments for sampling carbon dioxide.
Banerjee made this discovery in February of this year, and, according to her, for the next seven months, the ICN team set out to unearth everything it could about Exxon’s early climate research program. During the process of hopscotching from one source to the other, Banerjee said, the team became aware that a team at Columbia was working on a similar project. "We weren’t surprised, we knew that they were working on it," Banerjee said of her reaction to the story in the Times.
Crisscrossing each other’s paths
"When we called our sources, some of them would ask, ‘Are you from Columbia J-School?’ so we knew," said John H. Cushman Jr., the principal editor for the Exxon project at ICN. In a recent interview, he described it as hearing the "footsteps" of another journalist, which sometimes happens in the world of investigative journalism. "Later, we heard that they [Columbia] had partnered with the LA Times and that they were going to publish in spring of 2016," Banerjee said. ICN wasted no time in getting its reporting together, according to Cushman. The knowledge that another team was in hot pursuit of the same story lent its project a sense of urgency.
The Times published the first part of its series earlier than expected, less than three weeks after ICN came out with its first story. "The time was ripe for this kind of reporting. It’s not at all surprising other journalists were looking into this. Climate change is arguably the most important environmental issue — if not straight-up issue — of our time," Rust said of the Times and Columbia’s work, adding that after a year of reporting they believed they had enough to run the story.
Despite being centered on the same company, the reporting from the two series follows different document trails that intersect at some points. In the work that has been published till now, they zoom in on different eras of the company’s research. The ICN series tracks an arc that starts in the late 1970s and ’80s and traces it into the early 2000s, when the company had established a reputation as a climate change opponent, at least in its public posturing.
The first part of the Times-Columbia series takes off from the 1990s, when it would seem the gulf between what Exxon was practicing in its business and what it was saying with regard to climate change was already very wide. The second part scrutinizes how the company pivoted from being a leader in climate change research to a leader among the skeptics.
The stories seemed to have hit their mark, and not just with environmentalists. The revelations sparked calls for investigations into Exxon Mobil for potential fraud for concealing what it knew about climate change. Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shot off a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking for a task force to determine if the executives could be prosecuted. Two House Democrats also wrote to the attorney general asking for a probe into the company’s actions under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Ken Cohen, vice president of public and government affairs at Exxon, characterized the fallout as political theater and has maintained that Exxon did not suppress its early research and that it has continued to invest in climate change research. He accused both ICN and the Times of cherry-picking documentary evidence to fit a narrative. "We take great exception to what is contained in the ICN piece and the LA Times, they are taking great liberties with the facts, the allegations are inaccurate, and it appears to me that they are deliberately misleading," Cohen said in a recent interview.
Banerjee dismissed the argument that ICN’s reporting was selective. "If we had cherry-picked, we would have just included the quotes," she said. The Times did a story on Exxon and the Arctic but did not digitize the documents, she added, but "we did." The trove of almost 30 digitized documents, available on ICN’s website, however, does not include the 1979 transcript that led it to investigate Exxon.
"We are happy that the LA Times investigation reached the same conclusion," Cushman at ICN said, emphasizing that both ICN’s and the Times’ series complement each other. He went on to compare the way the two teams made inquiries into Exxon to how one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in human history was made. "Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution," he said.
Update: After publication, InsideClimate News (ICN) provided a link to a transcript that led to their investigation of Exxon. According to Neela Banerjee, she mistakenly identified the transcript as being published in 1979. It was published in 1980.