Exxon redux: who knew what and when

exxon memoFrom the Panama Papers to the Pentagon Papers with a stop in between at the internal memos exposed during the states’ litigation against Big Tobacco in the 1990s, industry documents are powerful tools in showing who knew what when – and shifting the tide of public opinion. We’ve reported on Inside Climate News‘ expose and political and legal reactions to it. Now, a treasure trove of documents on display at CIEL‘s website show what Exxon knew when.  Read more here.

Exxon, climate change: what did it know & when?

ICNThe Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists of Inside Climate News have done it again.  They’ve trained their investigative high beams on Exxon and its in-house climate change research efforts dating from the late 1970s.  In the first three parts of the on-line series, ICN has used internal documents and eyewitness accounts to paint the picture of a global oil company choosing to lead on climate change in the 1980s, by doing peer-reviewed research and working with the national government to best advise its board of directors and shareholders on how to position the company in an inevitable energy industry transition.  Overall the series seeks to answer questions like “when did Exxon know that fossil fuels contributed to atmospheric warming” and “why did it stop funding its research program and switch to funding climate denier groups like the Global Climate Coalition?”  As one key scientist on Exxon’s oil tanker project is quoted, “They spent so much money and they were the only company that did this kind of research as far as I know.That was an opportunity not just to get a place at the table, but to lead, in many respects, some of the discussion. And the fact that they chose not to do that into the future is a sad point.”

This series is a must read. It provides a poignant example of the costs of short-term thinking. It points to potential liability on truthful disclosure duties that Exxon has to its shareholders and U.S. securities regulators. By using the metaphor of Robert Frost’s beloved poem (especially this time of year in Vermont), ICN underscores the stark differences that choosing a path can make.  Sigh. If only Exxon had chosen the one truly less traveled by corporate leaders. Exhibit Z: The current expose of VW’s “diesel deception.”

frost pictureI shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
UPDATE:  The fourth-installment of this series addresses Exxon’s legal exposure.  “I think the case is already there to be made,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island.  Says veteran climate change litigator Matt Pawa, there is “no way, no way” for Exxon to escape eventual legal accountability, “not when it’s in plain sight and they recognized it decades ago.”