Tuesday, February 06, 2007

My date with the giant: ExxonMobil on global warming and allegations

ExxonMobil was recently scorched in the spotlight when an article in the UK newspaper the Guardian tied the planet’s largest corporation to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a vehemently free-market, right-leaning organization that tried to pay scientists and economists to author articles casting doubt on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) global warming report. This didn’t surprise many people, as Exxon has never had a reputation of being green or progressive on global warming solutions.

But can Exxon defend itself? Has it joined the rest of the world in recognizing global warming is happening? If so, what are its plans to slow it?

I had the privilege to represent Green Options and participate in two telephone news conferences with ExxonMobil’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Ken Cohen, to answer some of these questions. Other bloggers on the call were Jesse Jenkins from Watthead, Tom Yulsman from Prometheus, Susan Smith from the Environmental Law Prof Blog, and Stuart Staniford from The Oil Drum. One call took place on January 26, a week before the IPCC report was released. The next happened on February 2, the day the IPCC report and the Guardian article came out. This post is the first of a 2-part series on Exxon’s response to the allegations in the Guardian, its position on global warming, and what it thinks should be done about it.

I went in with an open mind: To be sure, Exxon was making a concerted effort to reach out to the blogosphere and discuss its position on global warming – that in itself was big news. But I also expected some real answers that would give me at least a glimmer of hope that this behemoth was taking decisive action.

“The IPCC report is the best compilation of the thinking on the subject,” Cohen told us, insisting that Exxon takes global warming very seriously and has in fact recognized the problem for twenty years. He spelled it out further:

Is the climate warming? Yes. Are CO2 emissions up? Yes, they’ve never been as high as they’ve been [now]. Man’s use of fossil fuels and land use changes and other human activity contribute to that CO2 rise.

So did ExxonMobil fund AEI to muddle the dialogue on global warming?

“We had no knowledge that this was going on,” insisted Cohen. He explained that Exxon funds a lot of different groups, and “when we fund them, we want good analysis." Exxon does not condone what AEI did, but Cohen confirmed that it does continues to fund AEI, although other groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute are not funded by them anymore.

Cohen assured us that Exxon is “trying to be a constructive player in the policy discussion and not associate [themselves] with those that are marginalized and are not welcome in that discussion.” The IPCC report “is what it is,” and Exxon does not believe in engaging in scientific research that preordains an answer. Cohen:

…that's the issue with AEI: Are they preordaining an answer?...I can understand taking a market approach or a government interventionist approach, but this is not a question of trying to find who’s right or who’s wrong. Let’s let the process work.

But, I asked, how can you grant AEI nearly two million dollars and not know what they’re doing with the money? Turns out that Exxon conveniently funds the “general operations” of AEI, not specific programs that would allow them to track how the money is being used. Perhaps Exxon needs to think hard next time before it funds an organization so clearly disinterested in constructive solutions.

Cohen was consistently explicit in Exxon's position that global warming is happening and mainly caused by human activities. If that is true, then how will Exxon fight the huge misperception that it’s still the planet's largest naysayer? Cohen conceded that the company needed to do a better job of communicating its position on global warming, rather than allowing a fact sheet or news release on their website to do the work.

Jesse Jenkins asked whether it would consider joining the new U.S. Climate Energy Action Partnership, a coalition of major corporations and environmental organizations calling for federal carbon dioxide regulation. When Cohen answered this question in our first conference call, he seemed cool to the idea, pointing out that Exxon is already part of many global warming discussion groups and that some of their scientists participate in the IPCC. However, Cohen brought the idea up himself on our second call, this time saying that the Partnership is a group “…that we might join and participate in the discussions – if they’ll have us.”

Coming up Thursday: What is Exxon doing to mitigate its contributions to global warming? Which policies and market-based solutions does it think would be the most effective? How is Exxon staying market-competitive in a shifting energy system?

Read Part 2

Cross posted at the Green Options blog

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