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Exxon minimized climate change internally after conceding that fossil fuels cause it

Internal Exxon documents obtained by <em>The Wall Street Journal</em> span Rex Tillerson's tenure as the company's chief executive from 2006 until 2016.
Brian Harkin
Getty Images
Internal Exxon documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal span Rex Tillerson's tenure as the company's chief executive from 2006 until 2016.

Updated September 15, 2023 at 10:09 AM ET

Executives at ExxonMobil continued in recent years to raise doubts internally about the dangers of climate change and the need to cut back on oil and gas use, even though the company had previously conceded publicly that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The effort to minimize concerns about climate change under former chief executive Rex Tillerson, who led Exxon from 2006 until 2016, was happening at the same time that scientists at the company were modeling troubling increases in carbon dioxide emissions without big reductions in fossil fuel consumption, the Journal reported. The newspaper cited internal company documents that were part of a New York state lawsuit and interviews with former executives.

Exxon, along with other oil and gas companies, is a defendant in multiple state and local lawsuits that accuse it of misleading the public about climate change and the dangers of fossil fuels.

Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, a group that is trying to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in driving climate change, says the documents obtained by Journal are likely to be used against Exxon in court.

"As communities pay an ever-greater price for our worsening climate crisis, it's more clear than ever that Exxon must be held accountable to pay for the harm it has caused," Wiles said in a statement.

Earlier investigations found Exxon worked for decades to sow confusion about climate change, even though its own scientists had begun warning executives as early as 1977 that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels were warming the planet, posing dire risks to human beings.

By the late 1980s, concern was growing domestically and overseas that fossil fuel use was heating the planet, increasing the risks of extreme weather. In response, the Journal reported, Exxon executive Frank Sprow sent a memo to colleagues warning that if there were a global consensus on addressing climate change, "substantial negative impacts on Exxon could occur."

According to the Journal, Sprow wrote: "Any additional R&D efforts within Corporate Research on Greenhouse should have two primary purposes: 1. Protect the value of our resources (oil, gas, coal). 2. Preserve Exxon's business options."

Sprow told the Journal that the approach in his memo was adopted as policy, in "what would become a central pillar of Exxon's strategy," the paper said.

A few years after the memo, Exxon became the architect of a highly effective strategy of climate change denial that succeeded for decades in politicizing climate policy and delaying meaningful action to cut heat-trapping pollution.

An Exxon spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the company has repeatedly acknowledged that "climate change is real, and we have an entire business dedicated to reducing emissions — both our own and others."

Last year, Exxon said it plans to spend about $17 billion on "lower emission initiatives" through 2027. That represents, at most, 17% of the total capital investments the company plans to make during that period.

Exxon recently said it is buying a company called Denburythat specializes in capturing carbon dioxide emissions and injecting them into oil wells to boost production. It's also planning to build a hydrogen plant and a facility to capture and store carbon emissions in Texas.

The company could spend more on "lower emission initiatives" if it sees "additional supportive government policies and new and improved technology," the spokesperson said.

Many scientists and environmental activists have questioned the feasibility of the carbon capture technology Exxon is relying on. Previous carbon capture projects by other companies have either been hugely over budget, or have closed. They contend that the more effective solution is to make deep cuts in fossil fuel use.

Investors seemed unfazed by the latest revelations about Exxon. The company's stock price was up almost 2% on Thursday afternoon.

Scientists with the United Nations recently warned that the world is running out of time to prevent global warming that would cause more dangerous impacts, like storms and droughts. Climate scientists say the world needs to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Currently, it is headed for about 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

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Corrected: September 15, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Exxon recently bought a company called Denbury. That acquisition has not been completed.
Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.