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Oil Springs Eternal

How ExxonMobil sold us climate complacency

ExxonMobil was once the most valuable company on earth. The product of a Clinton-era merger between the rebranded progeny of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and Standard Oil Company of New York—reuniting, respectively, as Exxon and Mobil, nearly a century after a Supreme Court antitrust ruling cleaved their parent company apart—it has long benefitted from the worldwide neoliberal retreat of government in the face of swelling corporate power. The corporation’s influence ran deep, especially in regard to the public perception of climate change. “Those with power create knowledge,” wrote Emily Plec and Mary Pettenger in a 2012 study of ExxonMobil’s marketing practices. At the time, ExxonMobil was aggressively marketing its latest low-emission energy initiative, a venture into algae biofuels. Do not fear climate change, such ads, which carry on today, seemed to suggest. Our engineers are hard at work. As Plec and Pettenger saw it, ExxonMobil’s greenwashing coached “acceptance of a particular attitude toward history,” effectively resigning the mainstream public to the incumbent energy regime, constraining efforts to imagine a future that does not, like the present, orbit around “ideologies of consumption”—and companies like ExxonMobil.

If ExxonMobil ever did stand eternal, its public messaging certainly did not. In his day, one-time CEO Lee R. Raymond was famously loathe to concede an inch to the company’s rabid environmentalist adversaries—even on the public relations front. In 2000, with regard to global warming, he could be heard telling shareholders: “If the data were compelling, I would change my view. Ninety percent of people thought the world was flat. No?” As the journalist Steve Coll noted in his 2012 epic, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, some ExxonMobil executives “took pride in their self-image as a corporation that did not try to pretend to be something it was not.” In this, the company differed from fellow oil and gas giant BP Amoco, which rebranded in 2000 as just “BP,” unveiling a new sun logo and marketing slogan: Beyond Petroleum. (BP also made conspicuous, if relatively tiny investments into solar technology at the time—a move which, as one corporate exec admitted to Coll, was justified purely on marketing grounds.)

ExxonMobil took a different tack. Raymond dismissed the company’s earlier ventures into renewable energy as moments of weakness, in which its former leaders made reactionary concessions to ephemeral political fads, eroding the business’s core identity. “In hindsight it appeared that we were abdicating who we were,” Raymond told Coll, referring to the company’s adventures in solar during the seventies. “Presidents come and go; Exxon doesn’t come and go.”

The future of biofuel is determined as much by policy and economics as it is by research.

The oil and gas industry’s covert efforts to suppress and slander the science on climate change has been well documented. ExxonMobil played a starring role in this campaign. An empirical analysis of nearly four decades of its communications found that “as company documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt” about the established climate science. While experts on their payroll sounded the alarm internally, Exxon expounded its peculiar scientific outlook in respected major newspapers like the New York Times. Meanwhile, it funneled millions into organizations that advanced independent-minded climate skepticism and also filed lawsuits undermining policies designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions. These efforts destabilized the epistemological ground on which bold, transformative climate action might have been taken.

ExxonMobil could not, however, head off the scientific consensus forever. In 2002, in the face of mounting pressure from climate activists, the company finally pledged to fund some basic renewable energy research. Like the Bush administration, to which it had such close ties, it chose to invest (modestly) in climate science, while resisting any binding treaty or tax or regulation that would actually compel stakeholders to address the existential crisis. In 2005, with the industry’s public credibility waning, ExxonMobil launched a campaign to “persuade political and media elites that while the oil industry should not necessarily be loved, it should be understood as inevitable,” wrote Coll. Since then, it claims to have invested around $10 billion researching and deploying lower-emission “energy solutions” spanning from carbon capture technology to cleaner-burning natural gas. As the company now declares, it wants to support “effective climate policy to address the risks related to climate change at the lowest societal cost.” In this spirit it made its $600 million commitment in 2009 to study algae biofuel technology, a move which “won widespread and uncritical news coverage,” according to Coll:

It appeared that ExxonMobil had finally internalized BP’s example that, in calculating the full costs of alternative energy investments, unpopular oil companies should factor in the marketing benefits of free favorable publicity.

ExxonMobil has been actively promoting the algae venture ever since, and researchers appear to have made meaningful, if still highly provisional headway developing a commercially viable extraction process. But coming off what many regard as a biofuel bubble, skeptics of ExxonMobil’s project rightly abound. Beginning in the mid-aughts, investors poured billions of dollars into biofuel companies, which failed to even remotely meet the expectations of overzealous energy analysts who predicted billions of gallons of low emission biofuels in short order.

The future of biofuel is determined as much by policy and economics as it is by research. Worldwide carbon taxation might generate more fertile conditions for its growth. The ongoing success of electric power generation through solar and wind, on the other hand, could cramp the market for liquid fuels. In any case, the timeline for the technology remains murky. In 2009, an ExxonMobil vice president told the New York Times that large-scale commercial plants to produce algae based fuels were at least five to ten years away. In 2013, then-CEO Rex Tillerson confessed to Charlie Rose that a quarter decade was the realistic estimate. Currently, the company strives for “the technical ability to produce 10,000 barrels of algae biofuels a day by 2025.”

ExxonMobil resists deviating from its core competency: finding, extracting, and processing fossil fuels at scale.

If realized, this would be a not inconsiderable accomplishment. But it would remain a tiny fraction of the company’s overall operations. ExxonMobil produces roughly four million oil-equivalent barrels daily. More to the point, it continues to invest billions of dollars in major new drilling projects around the world, from Mozambique to West Texas to Brazil. In a recent report, the company told investors that a new venture in offshore Guayana will ultimately produce eight billion oil-equivalent barrels over the project’s lifetime. The financials hardly inspire any more confidence. ExxonMobil claims it invested in biofuels on the order of $25 million per year over the past decade. This only slightly outpaces what is annually allots to current Chairman and CEO Darren W. Woods, who in 2019 received compensation amounting to $23.5 million, S.E.C. filings show.

Of course, ExxonMobil is not alone in placing disproportionate emphasis on its “green” endeavors. Just last year, the activist organization ClientEarth formally complained to UK National Contact Point, an influential international trade organization, about BP, alleging its “greenwashing . . . mislead[s] consumers about its focus on low carbon energy.” But ExxonMobil remains something of a leader in the field. The company stands out in that it “has spent so little on clean energy yet talked so loudly about it,” Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard-based scientist who co-authored the empirical study of the company’s climate-related communications, wrote to me in an email:

[ExxonMobil] has been making the same end-of-the-rainbow rhetorical defenses of the status quo for more than a decade: that addressing climate change . . . is a “challenge” that requires new “breakthrough” technologies to be invented, that they’re working on them, but for now we must continue with business as usual.

Coll’s Private Empire opens with the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill, in March 1989, when “an age of empire beckoned America and Exxon alike.” Today the neoliberal consensus lies in tatters. Falling fossil fuel demand has led large oil and gas companies to write down the the values of some assets in the recognition that, given the risks of steadily decreased fossil fuel demand, their untapped reserves have lost economic value.  The increasingly precarious market has also led European oil and gas giants like BP and Total to make significant investments in renewables as they scale back oil exploration. For now, ExxonMobil is avoiding such adjustments; it stands out for its optimistic accounting. Ever-bullish and left comparatively unaffected by pliant U.S. regulators, it resists deviating from its core competency: finding, extracting, and processing fossil fuels at scale.

To be successful in so technically complex and politically loaded an enterprise, a company must play the long game. And for decades, ExxonMobil’s strategy, Coll wrote, “was not so much to dazzle or manipulate Washington as to manage and outlast it.” It’s unclear how such a strategy would play with a Biden administration, which cavorts with progressive climate hawks and fossil-fuel industry sympathizers alike. But then, neither Joe Biden, Donald Trump, nor the fossil fuel industry should be setting the terms of what is politically possible in the first place. Well-organized mass movements have shown that they, too, can leverage their power to radically alter the public imagination. Companies like ExxonMobil come and go. We’d get by just fine without them.