1979 Exxon Internal Memo

Bill McKibben writes again in the Guardian about the evil (in his view) Exxon corporation. This time with the title “Imagine if Exxon had told the truth about climate change.”

The general idea is again that Exxon could have strongly accelerated countermeasures.

And again my comment is: If true, it would be a good idea to get Exxon and the other fossil fuel companies on board, as opposed to trying to paint them as the villains in this story. Since they have such amazing powers of solving the issue, why don’t at least try to get them to change their direction? And what stronger strategy could there be for that than pointing out the potential for higher prices coming from supply caps?

Exxon just published their latest quarter results. These are not very good, for their standards. Poor Exxon only made a profit of $4.2 billion and is cutting over 10 percent of their jobs as a consequence.

The reason for that is of course the low oil price.

The way to remedy that problem may be to hope for Saudi Arabia and Russia to reduce production, as former Saudi Aramco senior executive Sadad al-Husseini is quoted in the New York Times.

But having for example the Paris talks coming up with a firm supply cap reduced each year from now on would be a much more calculable and secure way to get those prices up again.

Anyway, in this post I would like to follow a suggestion by Exxon’s Ken Cohen and read the documents that are offered as a proof of Exxon’s evil ways.

First up is this 1979 memo by Henry Shaw calling attention to the problem and advocating for more research into the matter.

That memo discusses two precedents.

One is the question if super-sonic transports would have been damaging to the ozone layer. In Shaw’s opinion, the aircraft industry was unprepared for the debate. This resulted in their giving up their plans. Then it turned out that there was actually no danger.

The implication is obviously that the fossil  fuel industry needs to be prepared. While I don’t have an opinion about how dangerous super-sonic transports would have been for the ozone layer, I completely agree with the idea that Exxon needed to research the question so as to be prepared for any debate.

The other precedent is the ban of Freon based aerosol containers, again to protect the ozone layer. That caught the chemical industry unprepared. They could have started the transition to alternative products earlier.

Does that memo then advocate lying to the public?

Quite to the contrary. I quote:

We should be prepared for, and ahead of the government in making the public aware of pollution problems.

That is exactly what they should do in 1979. As well as now.

And they also needed to develop a long term strategy on how to remain profitable if the problem does lead to legislation.

They also need to develop that strategy now.

But I can’t find one. Their 2015 energy outlook for 2040 only assumes a business as usual scenario. They have oil still the biggest energy source in 2040 with demand 30% higher as 2010, and demand for gas 65% higher.

Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003, lenzblog.com).

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