Exxon's Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too...

Members of an American Petroleum Institute task force on CO2 included scientists from nearly every major oil company, including Exxon, Texaco and Shell...

Beginning in 1979 the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s most powerful lobbyist, together with the country's largest oil companies ran a task force to monitor and share climate research. Credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

The American Petroleum Institute together with the nation's largest oil companies ran a task force to monitor and share climate research between 1979 and 1983, indicating that the oil industry, not just Exxon alone, was aware of its possible impact on the world's climate far earlier than previously known.

The group's members included senior scientists and engineers from nearly every major U.S. and multinational oil and gas company, including Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio and Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil, the predecessors to Chevron, according to internal documents obtained by InsideClimate News and interviews with the task force's former director.

An InsideClimate News investigative series has shown that Exxon launched its own cutting-edge CO2 sampling program in 1978 in order to understand a phenomenon it suspected could harm its business. About a decade later, Exxon spearheaded campaigns to cast doubt on climate science and stall regulation of greenhouse gases. The previously unpublished papers about the climate task force indicate that API, the industry's most powerful lobbying group, followed a similar arc to Exxon's in confronting the threat of climate change.

Just as Exxon began tracking climate science in the late 1970s, when only small groups of scientists in academia and the government were engaged in the research, other oil companies did the same, the documents show. Like Exxon, the companies also expressed a willingness to understand the links between their product, greater CO2 concentrations and the climate, the papers reveal. Some corporations ran their own research units as well, although they were smaller and less ambitious than Exxon's and focused on climate modeling, said James J. Nelson, the former director of the task force.

"It was a fact-finding task force," Nelson said in an interview. "We wanted to look at emerging science, the implications of it and where improvements could be made, if possible, to reduce emissions."

The group was initially called the CO2 and Climate Task Force, but changed its name to the Climate and Energy Task Force in 1980, Nelson said.

A background paper on CO2 informed API members in 1979 that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was rising steadily, and it predicted when the first clear effects of climate change might be felt, according to a memo by an Exxon task force representative.  

In addition, API task force members appeared open to the idea that the oil industry might have to shoulder some responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions by changing refining processes and developing fuels that emitted less carbon dioxide.

Bruce S. Bailey of Texaco offered "for consideration" the idea that "an overall goal of the Task Force should be to help develop ground rules for energy release of fuels and the cleanup of fuels as they relate to CO2 creation," according to the minutes of a meeting on Feb. 29, 1980.

The minutes also show that the task force discussed a "potential area" for research and development that called for it to "'Investigate the Market Penetration Requirements of Introducing a New Energy Source into World Wide Use.' This would include the technical implications of energy source changeover, research timing and requirements."

Yet by the 1990s, it was clear that API had opted for a markedly different approach to the threat of climate change. It joined Exxon, other fossil fuel companies and major manufacturers in the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group whose objective was to derail international efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions. In 1998, a year after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by countries to cut fossil fuel emissions, API crafted a campaign to convince the American public and lawmakers that climate science was too tenuous for the United States to ratify the treaty.

"Unless 'climate change' becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts," according to the draft Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan circulated by API.

API and GCC were victorious when George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto agreement. A June 2001 briefing memorandum records a top State Department official thanking the GCC because Bush "rejected the Kyoto Protocol in part, based on input from you."

API did not respond to several requests for comment on this story.

The Climate and Energy Task Force continued until at least 1983, when Nelson left API after a four-year stint. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency's authority was growing, and oil companies believed the agency was silencing them, Nelson said. It became harder for corporations to get scientific papers published or to draw favorable media attention, the industry felt. In the end, company leaders feared this would lead to overregulation.

As a result, API decided that it wasn't enough to have scientists meeting in a task force about climate change or other pollution issues. It needed lobbyists to influence politicians on environmental issues, Nelson said.

James J. Nelson, the former director of the API task force on CO2. Credit: Neela Banerjee/InsideClimate News

"They took the environmental unit and put it into the political department, which was primarily lobbyists," Nelson said of API. "They weren't focused on doing research or on improving the oil industry's impact on pollution. They were less interested in pushing the envelope of science and more interested in how to make it more advantageous politically or economically for the oil industry. That's not meant as a criticism. It's just a fact of life."

Nelson said he departed API because he was not a lobbyist, but said he did not object to API's lobbying. Nelson does not accept that human activity is the main driver of climate change; he believes that natural cycles and phenomena such as volcanoes and deforestation have contributed significantly to a warming planet. The API was not about "trying to distort the truth but about getting the information out in a factual manner. It wasn't about propaganda," he said.

Nelson joined API in 1979 after a career as an Air Force pilot and then as the director of the first air quality monitoring system in Fairfax County, Va. At the time, API had an environment division that helped member companies organize and staff committees on potential pollution issues, including waste management and water quality. Nelson was hired to run the air quality committee, which focused largely on pollution such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants that had more immediate, local consequences.

CO2 was not among the most pressing issues that API members faced, Nelson said. Still, by the time he arrived, companies were already putting together the task force to monitor the emerging science on higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations and their possible impact on the climate. They had seen how pollution had hammered other industries, such as acid rain's effect on power generation or asbestos on construction, Nelson said. The oil industry did not want to be blindsided by the CO2 problem, which the science of the late 1970s had already linked to fossil fuel combustion.

As the group came together, Raymond J. Campion, a scientist at Exxon Research and Engineering and a member of the task force, recommended in memos to colleagues that "CO2 not receive a high priority" from API. One reason, Campion wrote, was because "the industry's credibility on such issues is not high at the present time, and should an API study indicate no serious CO2 problems, the results would be greeted with skepticism."

Some of the recipients of those memos were top people on the lobbying and planning side of Exxon USA, the company's domestic affiliate. On July 9, 1979, Campion wrote a memo to W.W. Madden, the manager of strategic planning at Exxon USA. Campion noted "Bill Slick's need for information on atmospheric CO2 buildup as a potential emerging issue for API to consider." Slick was an Exxon USA vice president and a well-known lobbyist in Washington.

Another reason to pursue a limited agenda, Campion wrote, was because the Energy Department and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) were expected to issue a report "momentarily" based on an April 1979 climate symposium that "concluded no catastrophic hazards would be associated with the CObuildup over the next 100 years and that society can cope readily with whatever problems ensue."

(Eventually published in October 1980, the AAAS report offered more sobering forecasts than Campion had expected, describing risks to nearly every facet of life on Earth and concluding catastrophes could be avoided only if timely steps were taken to address climate change.)

A memo from Campion to colleague J.T. Burgess dated Sept. 6, 1979 showed that the task force moved quickly to draft a background paper about CO2. Campion wrote that he was asked to critique it for Slick to use in API discussions.

Campion suggested corrections to the background paper's quantification of the rate of CObuild-up, as well as an estimate in the paper that the "warming of the atmosphere…may be noticeable within the next twenty years."

He estimated that the effects would be felt after 2000, after a cyclical cooling period had passed. Because a cyclical warming trend was then expected post 2000, it would intensify climate change, "worsening the effect," he wrote. It is not known if the corrections were made to the paper.

Campion declined to be interviewed regarding his participation on the task force. Other Exxon representatives included Robert J. Fritz, who could not be located, and Henry Shaw, the company's lead climate researcher in the late 1970s, who is deceased. Exxon did not answer a request for comment.

The company representatives were scientists and engineers, and well-versed on air quality issues, Nelson recalled. Their views on carbon dioxide's possible impact on the climate varied, with many skeptical that man-made emissions could substantially affect the atmosphere. But they approached their participation on the task force dispassionately, he said.

"The individuals I had on the task force were very, very technically and ethically moral," Nelson said. "They felt that their job for their company was to look at an issue and if there was a problem, or if the petroleum industry was part of it or could contribute to fixing the problem, they wanted to do that."

Nelson organized the monthly meetings, took minutes and disseminated information companies wanted to share. Documents show representatives of about a half-dozen companies at various meetings. The meeting sites rotated among the members' cities, including oil hubs such as Houston and Tulsa; Washington, where API is located; and New York, where Exxon was headquartered at the time. 

As Campion had recommended, API did not conduct its own research. But some of its members did, and they were generous about sharing their work and insights, Nelson said. "There were lots of discussions about climate models: whose were right and whose were wrong," he said.

Chevron acquired Texaco in 2000. Nelson said that Texaco's Bailey ran a small climate modeling team at the research facility in Beacon, N.Y. Bailey could not be located for comment. Chevron declined to comment on early CO2 research activities. 

At Shaw's urging, the task force invited Professor John A. Laurmann of Stanford University to brief members about climate science at the February 1980 meeting in New York. Shaw and Laurmann had participated in the same panel at the AAAS climate conference in April 1979.

Like many scientists at the time, Laurmann openly discussed the uncertainties in the evolving climate research, such as the limited long-term sampling data and the difficulty of determining regional effects of climate change, according to a copy of his presentation attached to the meeting minutes.

Still, Laurmann told his audience several times that the evidence showed that the increase in atmospheric CO2 is likely "caused by anthropogenic release of CO2, mainly from fossil fuel burning."

In his conclusions section, Laurmann estimated that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would double in 2038, which he said would likely lead to a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise in global average temperatures with "major economic consequences." He then told the task force that models showed a 5 degrees Celsius rise by 2067, with "globally catastrophic effects."

The documents also show that the Energy Department contacted the task force in November 1979 to get its opinion on a study to be published in the journal Science about CO2 emissions from the development of oil shale. The government and oil industry had embarked on a mission to develop synthetic petroleum from sources such as oil shale and coal because of falling conventional oil production in the U.S. and political instability in the Middle East.

The Science study, by two geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey, estimated that synthetic crude from oil shale would generate three to five times more CO2 than conventional oil, double previous estimates, the Energy Department said.

The task force spent several months analyzing and refining its statement on the USGS paper, documents show. "Our estimates are less than theirs," Nelson said, "and if their numbers become gospel and no one challenges them, it could cause concern."

Because it was heavily involved in synfuels, Exxon weighed in first in December 1979. Shaw said that the paper was well-written. But he agreed with the Energy Department that the CO2 estimates were too high, and that "the paper may alarm the public unjustifiably," he wrote in a letter to API.

Shaw's own calculations about COfrom synfuels served as the basis of the eventual position paper the task force sent to the Energy Department in the spring of 1980 after multiple drafts. In one draft, the task force stated in March 1980 that the estimates in the Science article were accurate in light of the assumptions it used. "However, several of these assumptions stem from worst-case scenarios that are highly improbable and unrealistic," the task force concluded.

It is unclear what the Energy Department did with the task force's assessment of the paper. Roger C. Dahlman, the Energy Department staff member who sent the article to the task force, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

After he left API in 1983, Nelson said he followed sporadically the organization's response to climate change.  He said he felt the API's lobbying stemmed from a desire to have its concerns heard.

"That was the driving force, a worry about excessive regulation, my impression from having watched it along the way," he said.

Charles DiBona served as president of API from 1979 to 1997, when the organization shifted its approach on climate change from following the science to intense lobbying to discredit it. DiBona said in a phone interview that he did not remember the climate task force. Like Nelson, he does not accept the prevailing scientific consensus that climate change is being driven by fossil fuel combustion. "I think there is some question about the broader scientific community. There's not much evidence that there is real consensus," DiBona said.

In the 1990s, API argued that the science was too weak to warrant action, even as research grew more certain about the link between fossil fuel use, greater CO2 concentrations and rising global temperatures. Exxon chief executive Lee Raymond was API chairman from 1996 to 1997, when he focused on the uncertainty. The GCC emphasized the issue, too, in its public statements.

"Many people, politicians and the public alike, believe that global warming is a rock-solid certainty," Raymond said in a 1997 speech in Beijing. "But it's not."

API organized industry resistance to the possibility of the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases in 1999. When the Bush administration took office, former API lobbyist Philip A. Cooney became chief of staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, the White House office that drove climate policy. Government scientists accused Cooney of rewriting federal research reports to sow doubt about man-made climate change. Cooney resigned in 2005 and went to work for ExxonMobil.

API's current position is that "fossil fuel development and environmental progress are not mutually exclusive," according to Jack Gerard, the group's president. But API still rejects any federal mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Gerard decried President Obama's Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from the country's power plants, the cornerstone of the administration's climate agenda, as destructive "government interference" in free markets.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that scientists from Chevron were involved in the American Petroleum Institute's CO2 task force. The scientists were from the companies that would officially form the company named Chevron in 1984: Standard Oil of California and Gulf.


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