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Offline jujyjuji

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Exxon's Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels' Role in Global Warming Decades Ago

Top executives were warned of possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect, then led efforts to block solutions.

By Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer
Sep 16, 2015

At a meeting in Exxon Corporation's headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world's use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

"In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels," Black told Exxon's Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.

It was July 1977 when Exxon's leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.

A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon's Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles.  Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.

"Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed," Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.

His presentations reflected uncertainty running through scientific circles about the details of climate change, such as the role the oceans played in absorbing emissions. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. "Present thinking," he wrote in the 1978 summary, "holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical."

Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon's ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company's understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.

Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.

This untold chapter in Exxon's history, when one of the world's largest energy companies worked to understand the damage caused by fossil fuels, stems from an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News. ICN's reporters interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists, and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents, many of them written between 1977 and 1986, during the heyday of Exxon's innovative climate research program. ICN combed through thousands of documents from archives including those held at the University of Texas-Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The documents record budget requests, research priorities, and debates over findings, and reveal the arc of Exxon's internal attitudes and work on climate and how much attention the results received.

Of particular significance was a project launched in August 1979, when the company outfitted a supertanker with custom-made instruments. The project's mission was to sample carbon dioxide in the air and ocean along a route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf.

In 1980, Exxon assembled a team of climate modelers who investigated fundamental questions about the climate's sensitivity to the buildup  of carbon dioxide in the air. Working with university scientists and the U.S. Department of Energy, Exxon strove to be on the cutting edge of inquiry into what was then called the greenhouse effect.

Exxon's early determination to understand rising carbon dioxide levels grew out of a corporate culture of farsightedness, former employees said. They described a company that continuously examined risks to its bottom line, including environmental factors. In the 1970s, Exxon modeled its research division after Bell Labs, staffing it with highly accomplished scientists and engineers.

In written responses to questions about the history of its research, ExxonMobil spokesman Richard D. Keil said that "from the time that climate change first emerged as a topic for scientific study and analysis in the late 1970s, ExxonMobil has committed itself to scientific, fact-based analysis of this important issue."

"At all times," he said, "the opinions and conclusions of our scientists and researchers on this topic have been solidly within the mainstream of the consensus scientific opinion of the day and our work has been guided by an overarching principle to follow where the science leads. The risk of climate change is real and warrants action."

At the outset of its climate investigations almost four decades ago, many Exxon executives, middle managers and scientists armed themselves with a sense of urgency and mission.

One manager at Exxon Research, Harold N. Weinberg, shared his "grandiose thoughts" about Exxon's potential role in climate research in a March 1978 internal company memorandum that read: "This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind."

His sentiment was echoed by Henry Shaw, the scientist leading the company's nascent carbon dioxide research effort.

"Exxon must develop a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation," Shaw wrote to his boss Edward E. David, the president of Exxon Research and Engineering in 1978. "This team must be recognized for its excellence in the scientific community, the government, and internally by Exxon management."

https://youtu.be/37L_qi1hupI


Exxon: The Road Not Taken
Exxon's Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels' Role in Global Warming Decades Ago
Top executives were warned of possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect, then led efforts to block solutions.

By Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer
Sep 16, 2015
Exxon Experiment

Exxon's Richard Werthamer (right) and Edward Garvey (left) are aboard the company's Esso Atlantic tanker working on a project to measure the carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and atmosphere. The project ran from 1979 to 1982. (Credit: Richard Werthamer)

At a meeting in Exxon Corporation's headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world's use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

"In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels," Black told Exxon's Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.

It was July 1977 when Exxon's leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.

A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon's Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles.  Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.

"Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed," Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.

His presentations reflected uncertainty running through scientific circles about the details of climate change, such as the role the oceans played in absorbing emissions. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. "Present thinking," he wrote in the 1978 summary, "holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical."

Exxon responded swiftly. Within months the company launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth. Exxon's ambitious program included both empirical CO2 sampling and rigorous climate modeling. It assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company's understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.

Then, toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research. In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.

This untold chapter in Exxon's history, when one of the world's largest energy companies worked to understand the damage caused by fossil fuels, stems from an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News. ICN's reporters interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists, and federal officials, and consulted hundreds of pages of internal Exxon documents, many of them written between 1977 and 1986, during the heyday of Exxon's innovative climate research program. ICN combed through thousands of documents from archives including those held at the University of Texas-Austin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The documents record budget requests, research priorities, and debates over findings, and reveal the arc of Exxon's internal attitudes and work on climate and how much attention the results received.

Of particular significance was a project launched in August 1979, when the company outfitted a supertanker with custom-made instruments. The project's mission was to sample carbon dioxide in the air and ocean along a route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf.

In 1980, Exxon assembled a team of climate modelers who investigated fundamental questions about the climate's sensitivity to the buildup  of carbon dioxide in the air. Working with university scientists and the U.S. Department of Energy, Exxon strove to be on the cutting edge of inquiry into what was then called the greenhouse effect.

Exxon's early determination to understand rising carbon dioxide levels grew out of a corporate culture of farsightedness, former employees said. They described a company that continuously examined risks to its bottom line, including environmental factors. In the 1970s, Exxon modeled its research division after Bell Labs, staffing it with highly accomplished scientists and engineers.

In written responses to questions about the history of its research, ExxonMobil spokesman Richard D. Keil said that "from the time that climate change first emerged as a topic for scientific study and analysis in the late 1970s, ExxonMobil has committed itself to scientific, fact-based analysis of this important issue."

"At all times," he said, "the opinions and conclusions of our scientists and researchers on this topic have been solidly within the mainstream of the consensus scientific opinion of the day and our work has been guided by an overarching principle to follow where the science leads. The risk of climate change is real and warrants action."

At the outset of its climate investigations almost four decades ago, many Exxon executives, middle managers and scientists armed themselves with a sense of urgency and mission.

One manager at Exxon Research, Harold N. Weinberg, shared his "grandiose thoughts" about Exxon's potential role in climate research in a March 1978 internal company memorandum that read: "This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind."

His sentiment was echoed by Henry Shaw, the scientist leading the company's nascent carbon dioxide research effort.

"Exxon must develop a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation," Shaw wrote to his boss Edward E. David, the president of Exxon Research and Engineering in 1978. "This team must be recognized for its excellence in the scientific community, the government, and internally by Exxon management."

Irreversible and Catastrophic


Exxon budgeted more than $1 million over three years for the tanker project to measure how quickly the oceans were taking in CO2. It was a small fraction of Exxon Research's annual $300 million budget, but the question the scientists tackled was one of the biggest uncertainties in climate science: how quickly could the deep oceans absorb atmospheric CO2? If Exxon could pinpoint the answer, it would know how long it had before CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere could force a transition away from fossil fuels.

Exxon also hired scientists and mathematicians to develop better climate models and publish research results in peer-reviewed journals. By 1982, the company's own scientists, collaborating with outside researchers, created rigorous climate models – computer programs that simulate the workings of the climate to assess the impact of emissions on global temperatures. They confirmed an emerging scientific consensus that warming could be even worse than Black had warned five years earlier.

Exxon's research laid the groundwork for a 1982 corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change prepared by its environmental affairs office. Marked "not to be distributed externally," it contained information that "has been given wide circulation to Exxon management." In it, the company recognized, despite the many lingering unknowns, that heading off global warming "would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion."

Unless that happened, "there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered," the primer said, citing independent experts. "Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible."

The Certainty of Uncertainty

Like others in the scientific community, Exxon researchers acknowledged the uncertainties surrounding many aspects of climate science, especially in the area of forecasting models. But they saw those uncertainties as questions they wanted to address, not an excuse to dismiss what was increasingly understood.

"Models are controversial," Roger Cohen, head of theoretical sciences at Exxon Corporate Research Laboratories, and his colleague, Richard Werthamer, senior technology advisor at Exxon Corporation, wrote in a May 1980 status report on Exxon's climate modeling program. "Therefore, there are research opportunities for us."

When Exxon's researchers confirmed information the company might find troubling, they did not sweep it under the rug.

"Over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged," Cohen wrote in September 1982, reporting on Exxon's own analysis of climate models. It was that a doubling of the carbon dioxide blanket in the atmosphere would produce average global warming of 3 degrees Celsius, plus or minus 1.5 degrees C (equal to 5 degrees Fahrenheit plus or minus 1.7 degrees F).

"There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth's climate," he wrote, "including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere."

He warned that publication of the company's conclusions might attract media attention because of the "connection between Exxon's major business and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2."

Nevertheless, he recommended publication.

Our "ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature," Cohen wrote. "Indeed, to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon's public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity."

Exxon followed his advice. Between 1983 and 1984, its researchers published their results in at least three peer-reviewed papers in Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and an American Geophysical Union monograph.

David, the head of Exxon Research, told a global warming conference financed by Exxon in October 1982 that "few people doubt that the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence upon fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not pose problems of CO2 accumulation." The only question, he said, was how fast this would happen.

But the challenge did not daunt him. "I'm generally upbeat about the chances of coming through this most adventurous of all human experiments with the ecosystem," David said.

Exxon considered itself unique among corporations for its carbon dioxide and climate research.  The company boasted in a January 1981 report, "Scoping Study on CO2," that no other company appeared to be conducting similar in-house research into carbon dioxide, and it swiftly gained a reputation among outsiders for genuine expertise.

"We are very pleased with Exxon's research intentions related to the CO2 question. This represents very responsible action, which we hope will serve as a model for research contributions from the corporate sector," said David Slade, manager of the federal government's carbon dioxide research program at the Energy Department, in a May 1979 letter to Shaw. "This is truly a national and international service."

Business Imperatives


In the early 1980s Exxon researchers often repeated that unbiased science would give it legitimacy in helping shape climate-related laws that would affect its profitability.

Still, corporate executives remained cautious about what they told Exxon's shareholders about global warming and the role petroleum played in causing it, a review of federal filings shows. The company did not elaborate on the carbon problem in annual reports filed with securities regulators during the height of its CO2 research.

Nor did it mention in those filings that concern over CO2 was beginning to influence business decisions it was facing.

Throughout the 1980s, the company was worried about developing an enormous gas field off the coast of Indonesia because of the vast amount of CO2 the unusual reservoir would release.

Exxon was also concerned about reports that synthetic oil made from coal, tar sands and oil shales could significantly boost CO2 emissions. The company was banking on synfuels to meet growing demand for energy in the future, in a world it believed was running out of conventional oil. 

In the mid-1980s, after an unexpected oil glut caused prices to collapse, Exxon cut its staff deeply to save money, including many working on climate. But the climate change problem remained, and it was becoming a more prominent part of the political landscape.

"Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate," declared the headline of a June 1988 New York Times article describing the Congressional testimony of NASA's James Hansen, a leading climate expert. Hansen's statements compelled Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) to declare during the hearing that "Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend."

With alarm bells suddenly ringing, Exxon started financing efforts to amplify doubt about the state of climate science.

Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world's largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.

As the international community moved in 1997 to take a first step in curbing emissions with the Kyoto Protocol, Exxon's chairman and CEO Lee Raymond argued to stop it.

"Let's agree there's a lot we really don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond," Raymond said in his speech before the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing in October 1997.

"We need to understand the issue better, and fortunately, we have time," he said. "It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now."

Over the years, several Exxon scientists who had confirmed the climate consensus during its early research, including Cohen and David, took Raymond's side, publishing views that ran contrary to the scientific mainstream.

Paying the Price

Exxon's about-face on climate change earned the scorn of the scientific establishment it had once courted.

In 2006, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's science academy, sent a harsh letter to Exxon accusing it of being "inaccurate and misleading" on the question of climate uncertainty. Bob Ward, the Academy's senior manager for policy communication, demanded that Exxon stop giving money to dozens of organizations he said were actively distorting the science.

In 2008, under mounting pressure from activist shareholders, the company announced it would end support for some prominent groups such as those Ward had identified.

Still, the millions of dollars Exxon had spent since the 1990s on climate change deniers had long surpassed what it had once invested in its path-breaking climate science aboard the Esso Atlantic.

"They spent so much money and they were the only company that did this kind of research as far as I know," Edward Garvey, who was a key researcher on Exxon's oil tanker project, said in a recent interview with InsideClimate News and Frontline. "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."

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, who has been a frequent target of climate deniers, said that inaction, just like actions, have consequences. When he recently spoke to InsideClimate News, he was unaware of this chapter in Exxon's history.

"All it would've taken is for one prominent fossil fuel CEO to know this was about more than just shareholder profits, and a question about our legacy," he said. "But now because of the cost of inaction—what I call the 'procrastination penalty'—we face a far more uphill battle."

Part II, coming on September 17, will further examine Exxon's early climate research.

ICN staff members Zahra Hirji, Paul Horn, Naveena Sadasivam, Sabrina Shankman and Alexander Wood also contributed to this report.



Source + videos: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/15092015/Exxons-own-research-confirmed-fossil-fuels-role-in-global-warming

Offline jujyjuji

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Part 2 ---

Exxon Believed Deep Dive Into Climate Research Would Protect Its Business

Outfitting its biggest supertanker to measure the ocean's absorption of carbon dioxide was a crown jewel in Exxon's research program.

Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song, David Hasemyer
Sep 17, 2015



Researchers conducted Exxon's first climate-related project aboard the Esso Atlantic tanker, pictured here, between 1979 and 1982.

In 1981, 12-year-old Laura Shaw won her seventh-grade science fair at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Cranford, N.J. with a project on the greenhouse effect.

For her experiment, Laura used two souvenir miniatures of the Washington Monument, each with a thermometer attached to one side. She placed them in glass bowls and covered one with plastic wrap – her model of how a blanket of carbon dioxide traps the reflected heat of the sun and warms the Earth. When she turned a lamp on them, the thermometer in the plastic-covered bowl showed a higher temperature than the one in the uncovered bowl.

If Laura and her two younger siblings were unusually well-versed in the emerging science of the greenhouse effect, as global warming was known, it was because their father, Henry Shaw, had been busily tracking it for Exxon Corporation.

"I knew what the greenhouse effect was before I knew what an actual greenhouse was," David Shaw, Henry's son, said in a recent interview.

Henry Shaw, who died in 2003, was one of the Exxon scientists engaged in an ambitious quest to comprehend the potentially devastating effects that carbon dioxide emissions could have on the climate. From the late 1970s to the mid-80s, Exxon scientists worked at the cutting edge of climate change research, documents examined by InsideClimate News show. This history of that research emerged from an eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News.

Exxon documents show that top corporate managers were aware of their scientists' early conclusions about carbon dioxide's impact on the climate. They reveal that scientists warned management that policy changes to address climate change might affect profitability. After a decade of frank internal discussions on global warming and conducting unbiased studies on it, Exxon changed direction in 1989 and spent more than 20 years discrediting the research its own scientists had once confirmed.

After reading the first chapter of InsideClimate News' series on Exxon's carbon dioxide research, the company declined to answer specific questions. In an email, Exxon spokesman Richard D. Keil said he would no longer respond to inquiries from InsideClimate News, and added, "ExxonMobil scientists have been involved in climate research and related policy analysis for more than 30 years, yielding more than 50 papers in peer-reviewed publications."

Building the Team

Henry Shaw was part of an accomplished group at Exxon tasked with studying the greenhouse effect. In the mid-70s, documents show that Shaw was responsible for seeking out new projects that were "of national significance," and that could win federal funding. Others included Edward E. David, Jr., a former science advisor to President Richard Nixon, and James F. Black, who worked on hydrogen bomb research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1950s.

Black, who died in 1988, was among the first Exxon scientists to become acquainted with the greenhouse effect. Esso, as Exxon was known when he started, allowed him to pursue personal scientific interests. Black was fascinated by the idea of intentionally modifying weather to improve agriculture in arid countries, said his daughter, Claudia Black-Kalinsky.

"He believed that big science could save the world," she said. In the early 1960s, Black helped draft a National Academy of Sciences report on weather and climate modification. Published in 1966, it said the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere "agrees quite well with the rate of its production by man's consumption of fossil fuels."

In the same period, a report for President Lyndon Johnson from the President's Science Advisory Council in 1965 said the burning of fossil fuels "may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate" by the year 2000.

By 1977, Black had become a top technical expert at Exxon Research & Engineering, a research hub based in Linden, N.J., and a science advisor to Exxon's top management.  That year he made a presentation to the company's leading executives warning that carbon dioxide accumulating in the upper atmosphere would warm the planet and if the CO2 concentration continued to rise, it could harm the environment and humankind.

"The management committee consisted of the top level senior managers at Exxon. The chairman, the president, the senior vice presidents, corporate wide," N. Richard Werthamer, who worked at Exxon Research, said in a recent interview with InsideClimate News. "The management committee only has a limited amount of time and they're only going to deal with issues that are of relevance to the corporation as a whole. They're not interested in science per se, they are interested in the implications, so it was very significant."

In those years, the evidence of global warming justified neither panic nor complacency. "A lively sense of urgency," is what the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) called for in a 1977 report that contained a comprehensive survey of what was understood about global warming at that time.

The NAS report said that it would be understandable if the uncertainties of climate science elicited a cautious response from researchers and policymakers. But "if the decision is postponed until the impact of man-made climate changes has been felt, then, for all practical purposes, the die will already have been cast," it concluded.

Shaw heard these conclusions in October 1977 at a meeting in Atlanta organized by scientists and officials from the Carter administration who had formed a "study group on global environmental effects of carbon dioxide," he told Exxon colleagues in a memo two weeks later.

The NAS report had concluded that the climatic effects of rising carbon dioxide "may be the primary limiting factor on energy production from fossil fuels over the next few centuries," Shaw wrote, quoting the report's central conclusion almost verbatim.

Along with an awareness of the science, Shaw gained a sense of opportunity, Exxon documents show. The U.S. Energy Department, which had only been created in 1977 in response to a global oil shortage, was launching a research program into carbon dioxide's effects and planned to disburse about $9 million to research laboratories, Shaw learned.

At the time, two major uncertainties plagued climate science: how much of the CO2 in the air came from fossil fuels as opposed to deforestation? And how quickly could the oceans absorb atmospheric CO2? The scientists at the Atlanta meeting considered it crucial to investigate those questions immediately, Shaw wrote.

Both issues were vital to the oil industry's future. If deforestation played as great a role as fossil fuels in CO2 accumulation, then responsibility for reducing carbon dioxide emissions would not fall entirely on the energy industry. If the oceans could slow the greenhouse effect by absorbing more CO2, there would be time before the fossil fuel industry had to adjust.

In a memo to a colleague in March 1978, one of Shaw's bosses, Harold N. Weinberg, wrote: "I propose that Exxon be the initiator of a worldwide 'CO2 in the Atmosphere' R&D program…What would be more appropriate than for the world's leading energy company and leading oil company [to] take the lead in trying to define whether a long-term CO2 problem really exists, and if so, what counter measures would be appropriate."



But Weinberg's vision proved too ambitious for Exxon.

Exxon Research "considered an independent research program but concluded that the amount of effort required and the scope of disciplines involved made it impractical for a single institution to attack this problem alone," Walter R. Eckelmann, an executive at the Science & Technology Department at Exxon headquarters in New York wrote to a senior vice president.

Eckelmann's letter was one of many instances when Exxon's CO2 research would reach beyond Exxon Research & Engineering in New Jersey and to executives at the company's New York headquarters, documents show.

Exxon's extensive research was driven by the threat accumulating CO2 posed to the company's core business, according to participants and documents.

"My guess is they were looking for what might happen if we keep burning fossil fuels; what that would mean to them," said Taro Takahashi, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Takahashi, who spent his career studying climate change, collaborated on a research project with Exxon in the late 1970s to early 80s and used data from the research in several studies he later published in peer-reviewed journals.

The project he worked on—outfitting an ocean tanker to measure the ocean's absorption of carbon dioxide—was a crown jewel in Exxon's research program.

Groundbreaking Experiments


Bold research projects were not uncommon at Exxon, which in the 1970s considered gradually shifting from oil to become a diversified energy company. Through its research units, Exxon explored ways to encourage more efficient consumption of petroleum and a wide range of alternative fuels. After company scientist Elliot Berman found a way to slash the cost of making photovoltaic solar cells by 80 percent, Exxon's chairman Clifton Garvin publicized how he heated his family swimming pool with solar power to show support for energy diversification.

To nudge greater innovation, Garvin hired Edward E. David, Jr. in 1977 to run Exxon Research. David had spent two decades at Bell Labs, a leader in the blue-sky research that led to big leaps in technology, and eventually became its director of research. While serving as Nixon's science advisor from 1970-'73, White House staff taught him about climate science as part of a report on energy and electricity issues, one former staff member recalled.

At Exxon, David opened the door wide to studying carbon dioxide.

In a letter to David and 14 other Exxon Research executives in December 1978, Shaw spelled out why Exxon should take on carbon dioxide research—specifically, with the ambitious ocean-sampling initiative.

"The rationale for Exxon's involvement and commitment of funds and personnel is based on our need to assess the possible impact of the greenhouse effect on Exxon business," Shaw wrote. "Exxon must develop a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation.

"We see no better method to acquire the necessary reputation than by attacking one of the major uncertainties in the global CO2 balance, i.e., the flux to the oceans and providing the necessary data."

Scientists knew the oceans had some ability to absorb CO2 and potentially neutralize climate change. Any CO2 that made its way from the atmosphere into the deep oceans—more than 50 to 100 feet below the surface—would be sequestered away for hundreds of years. But they also knew the rate of absorption was limited, and determining the exact rate was crucial for understanding the oceans' ability to delay the greenhouse effect.

Exxon's Floating Lab

Exxon delved into the oceans' role by installing a state-of-the-art lab aboard the Esso Atlantic, one of the biggest supertankers of the time.

Exxon planned to gather atmospheric and oceanic CO2 samples along the Esso Atlantic's route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf. If the sensors revealed a deep enough oceanic sink, or absorption, the fossil fuel industry might have more time before it had to make tough decisions about its role in warming the planet.

"We couldn't account for everything because the exchanges between the atmosphere and the oceans weren't fully understood," Edward Garvey, Shaw's main researcher on the tanker project, said in an interview. "Our goal was to complete the carbon cycle to understand where global carbon production would end up and then make forecasts of how the system would react in the future."

The experiment began on August 8, 1979, when Garvey oversaw the equipping of the Esso Atlantic, which was docked by the Lago Refinery in Aruba, an island in Dutch West Indies.
***

Werthamer, Shaw's boss in 1980-81, said the project wouldn't have happened without Shaw's initiative.

"Henry Shaw was a very forceful guy, quiet, he didn't hit you over the head, but he presented his case in ways that made it hard to not agree with it," Werthamer said in a recent interview. "He had the political savvy to put it over and the technical savvy to make it happen."

While the company had the wherewithal to carry out the study on the oceans, it lacked the expertise. So Exxon recruited two experts, Wallace Broecker and Takahashi, his colleague at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory.

Takahashi said he made it clear that he and Broecker would not compromise their scientific integrity. "The one condition that was not negotiable was we shall publish our results to the open public no matter the results," he said in an interview.

Exxon scientists and managers involved with the project agreed.

"The tanker project was intended to provide valid, legitimate, scientific data, unassailable hopefully, on key questions in atmospheric chemistry [of] CO2 emissions," Werthamer said. "Henry's additional goal was to make Exxon a credible participant in that research and in the dialogue that would inevitably follow…He wanted Exxon to be respected as a valid player and have Exxon's opinions solicited, and participate in discussions on policy, rather than have the issue suddenly dumped with Exxon's back turned."

Responding to ICN's questions about the tanker research last week, Exxon spokesman Richard Keil said it "was actually aimed at increasing understanding of the marine carbon cycle – it had nothing to do with CO2 emissions."

But from the beginning of the research, documents show, its participants described it differently.

In a memo to Harold Weinberg on July 3, 1979, Shaw described in detail the tanker's route and its instruments, explaining that "this will provide information on the possible growth of CO2 in the atmosphere."

In a November 1979 memo to Weinberg, he wrote, "It behooves us to start a very aggressive defensive program in the indicated areas of atmospheric science and climate because there is a good probability that legislation affecting our business will be passed."

Depending on its findings, the research might provide an escape valve from the carbon problem, or point to some new direction in energy.

The research "could well influence Exxon's view about the long-term attractiveness of coal and synthetics relative to nuclear and solar energy" David wrote in a November 1979 letter to senior vice president George T. Piercy.

Exxon's enthusiasm for the project flagged in the early '80s when federal funds fell through. Exxon Research cancelled the tanker project in 1982, but not before Garvey, Shaw and other company engineers published an initial paper in a highly specialized journal on the project's methodology.

"We were anxious to get the word out that we were doing this study," Garvey said of the paper, which did not reach sweeping conclusions. "The paper was the first of what we hoped to be many papers from the work," he said in a recent email. But the other publications never materialized.

Takahashi later co-authored a study in 1990 partially based on the tanker data that said land-based ecosystems—boreal forests, for example—absorbed more atmospheric CO2 than the oceans. He used Exxon's tanker records again in 2009, in an updated study that compiled 30 years of oceanic CO2 data from dozens of reports. This time, his team concluded the oceans absorb only about 20 percent of the CO2 emitted annually from fossil fuels and other human activities. The paper earned Takahashi a "Champions of the Earth" prize from the United Nations.

Other research ideas that bubbled up in those days were even more imaginative.

Shaw and Garvey sketched out a second project to determine how much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was attributable to fossil fuels as compared to deforestation. Shaw's team proposed measuring the carbon isotopes—a chemical fingerprint—in 100 bottles of vintage French wine over time. To ensure data quality, they would only sample wine from long-established vineyards that kept careful records of temperatures and growing conditions. In the same file was a New York Times review by wine critic Frank Prial of classic Bordeaux vintages, including a $300 Lafite-Rothschild bottle from 1945.

"The C-isotope studies of biological material also appear useful and novel," David Slade, the head of the Energy Department's carbon dioxide research, wrote to Shaw in a May 1979 letter. "We congratulate (with some envy) Exxon's resourcefulness in selecting aged wines as the biological material."

Implications Become Clearer

As Exxon worked to reduce the uncertainties of climate science, its employees developed a sophisticated understanding of the potential effects of rising CO2 concentrations, documents show. They understood that the Earth's poles would warm more quickly than the rest of the planet, and how a reduction in ice and snow cover would change the planet's ability to reflect sunlight.

They also discussed among themselves and with corporate executives other potential effects of climate change, including an increase in weeds, pests, and human migration, the documents show.

Some of the company's highest-ranking executives were told of the studies and of estimates about when the impact of global warming might be felt. On November 9, 1979, Edward David wrote a three-page letter to senior vice president Piercy explaining the importance of the ocean investigations.

In January 1980, Science & Technology's Eckelmann  wrote to senior vice president M.E.J. "Morey" O'Loughlin that his unit "feels that the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a potentially serious problem requiring the results of a huge worldwide research effort before quantitative predictions can be reached on the probabilities and timing of world climate changes."

Piercy and O'Loughlin seemed particularly interested in following the emerging climate science, internal documents indicate. In a memo to Werthamer and Shaw in June 1980, Weinberg wrote that Piercy "questioned him closely" at an Exxon meeting about the movement of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the oceans.

Outside Experts Take Notice

During this time, Exxon was building a reputation for expertise on carbon dioxide, prompting government and industry to seek its input on the issue. As early as 1979, the American Petroleum Institute formed a CO2 and Climate Task Force, and Exxon sent Shaw to the group's meetings as its representative, according to documents. The other industry members were Sohio, Texaco, and Shell. They often met in a conference room at LaGuardia Airport.

Shaw was a regular on advisory committees and government task forces, rubbing shoulders with many leading climate scientists, including NASA's James Hansen and Columbia's Stephen Schneider, whom Exxon even considered as a possible recruit, according to one document.

U.S. government officials expressed their appreciation to Exxon for the company's contributions, calling it a valued partner.

In a letter to Shaw in May 1979, David Slade, the head of the Energy Department's Carbon Dioxide and Climate Research program, wrote: "This represents very responsible action, which we hope will serve as a model for research contributions from the corporate sector."

Two years later, Slade's successor in President Ronald Reagan's administration, Frederick A. Koomanoff, wrote: "We feel that Exxon should be commended for their initiatives to investigate the carbon dioxide issue."

Part III next week: Exxon's foray into rigorous climate modeling.

ICN staff members Zahra Hirji, Paul Horn, Naveena Sadasivam, Sabrina Shankman and Alexander Wood also contributed to this report.


Source/More: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/16092015/exxon-believed-deep-dive-into-climate-research-would-protect-its-business