Columns » Ernest Dumas

Exxon changes climate politics

Even when it has been hidden for half a century, a little scientific knowledge can open windows to change.

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Even when it has been hidden for half a century, a little scientific knowledge can open windows to change. That is true even when the hidden knowledge matches what the scientific world already knew.

Now we know, thanks to a dump of documents last week by the Center for International Environmental Law, that long before the phrases "global warming" and "climate change" entered the public lexicon, the oil industry itself knew that burning coal, oil, gas was heating the planet and that it might wreak havoc upon generations down the line.

It is being treated as a giant public relations problem for Exxon Mobil, the world's biggest energy company, because the documents reinforce, if only modestly, the charges that Exxon Mobil, back when it was Humble Oil Co. some 60 years ago, knew all about the environmental threats of atmospheric carbon dioxide, kept the knowledge from investors and the public and supported the highly successful climate-change denial campaign to ward off regulation of the industry.

Exxon Mobil insisted this week that it had never denied the threat of carbon-induced warming or financed the climate-denial campaign and that it supported alternative research merely to advance knowledge of the effect of carbon combustion on the world. The same day, it redoubled efforts to thwart investigations of its confidential work on the issue by attorneys general of New York and other states (no, not Arkansas's attorney general, who is squarely in the camp of the climate deniers and industries seeking to block rules that would protect air over the Natural State) by claiming that the investigations violated Exxon's speech rights and its freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

But the surfacing documents about old chemical studies and the petrochemical industry's grudging acknowledgments of climate change in the face of daily climate scares are changing the political climate and sharply improving the prospects of at least scaling down the pace of warming.

States from California to the Deep South are moving to meet the Obama administration's new atmospheric carbon standards, in most cases well ahead of the deadlines. That includes Arkansas, where denial is the uniform public policy, embraced by every Republican official, which is to say everyone who has any power.

Arkansas had about the toughest road owing to its heavy reliance on coal combustion for electricity and its continued building of coal plants when the rest of the country was turning to cleaner gas or renewable energy. Entergy Arkansas, which produces most of the electricity in Arkansas, is moving to curtail emissions from its dirty coal units well ahead of deadlines in the president's carbon-emission rules. As I detailed two weeks ago, it is buying a big gas-combustion unit across the creek from my boyhood home, contracting for solar power from a Stuttgart plant and seeking 500 megawatts of wind power from the Oklahoma panhandle. Next month it will put out a detailed request for bids for another 100 megawatts of clean, renewable power from wind, solar, biomass or hydroelectric projects.

The cache of studies dumped by the environmental group included the work of the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who in 1896 quantified the impact of carbon dioxide on the climate. His hypothesis that burning fossil fuels was raising global temperatures was in geology texts early in the 20th century. During the great oil booms of the 1920s and '30s, when my cousins in the brownfields around refineries, wells and poisoned streams in Union County were being born with severe mental and physical disabilities, Guy Callendar documented a steady increase in global temperatures, correlated it to rising fossil-fuel use and furnished the results to the American Petroleum Institute.

Humble (Exxon Mobil) Oil's H.R. Brannon was engaged in carbon-14 research in the 1950s. His paper for the oil company, building on the work of scientists at the Scripps Institute, overturned the old theory that the oceans would absorb all the CO2 from fossil burning and save the earth from warming. But the scientist did argue in a 1957 report to Exxon that the CO2 from fuel burning conceivably might stay in the oceans longer than the Scripps scientists figured and delay cataclysmic climate change for decades or centuries.

A scientific study delivered to industry experts at the World Petroleum Congress in 1971 concluded that the risk of dramatic climate change from fossil fuel burning was real, but a committee of high-level oil executives submitted their own condensation to the Interior Department that, while citing the scientists, emphasized uncertainties and supported a wait-and-see stance on climate action. One of the scientists submitted a "supplemental" report to the oilmen that was more equivocal than his earlier one, and that became the basis of Exxon Mobil's and the industry's public skepticism about warming.

No, it doesn't approach the criminal conduct of the cigarette industry, but, then, the stakes are greater.

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