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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

ExxonMobil's Ever-Shifting Strategy on Climate

I've always felt that one of the best examples of human foolishness was offered by international oil corporations. At the same time they were spending millions on a PR campaign to deny that global warming was even happening, they were drooling over all that open water that warming was creating in the oil- and gas-rich Arctic Circle. In 2007, ExxonMobil was exposed as having earlier launched a massive disinformation campaign; coincidentally the same year that McClatchy reported "the melt [had] reached record levels," as "the ice shrank to the second smallest area on record." Exxon knew this of course, because McClatchy also reported, "The arctic accounts for 13% of undiscovered oil, 30% of undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of undiscovered natural gas liquids," as the following graphic shows:

Arctic reserves map

McClatchy also reported that the melt had resulted in an increase of arctic shipping serving the oil industry. It's impossible to believe that Exxon was out of that loop.

At this point, I should probably state that I'm singling out ExxonMobil for a reason; they launched one of the most well-documented anti-science PR campaigns in history, to the tune of $16 million, from 1998 to 2005 -- dirt cheap, considering what they accomplished -- and continuing (more clandestine) since. All the while they watched that sea ice recede further and further, as it had for the past three decades. While other oil companies were engaged in a campaign of greenwashing, ExxonMobil was one of the sole holdouts, still clinging to climate denial and still funding anti-warming hacks commonly known as "biostitutes" -- a portmanteau of the words "bio-scientist" and "prostitute." These are basically lobbyists and public relations flacks who use their scientific degrees to push pro-industry pseudo-science. You know, the same guys who argued that smoking wasn't bad for you and asbestos was great. Here, have some trans fats with your high fructose corn syrup -- best thing for you.

Then, in 2009, the corporation seemed to make a complete reversal. They announced they were green, green, green, global warming was absolutely happening, and we all had to roll up our sleeves and do something about it.

The Independent, January 2009:

Exxon had already dropped its funding of lobby groups which deny the science of climate change and begun to take a softer public line, but even [Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson] admitted that propounding a carbon tax had stuck in the craw until recently. However, with European-style "cap and trade" rules governing carbon emissions moving up the agenda in the US, a carbon tax may be the least worst option, he said. Environmental groups gave a sceptical response to Exxon's U-turn, calling it a deliberate attempt to torpedo the movement for outright carbon caps and any early switch to alternative energy. "A carbon tax is also the most efficient means of reflecting the cost of carbon in all economic decisions -- from investments made by companies to fuel their requirements, to the product choices made by consumers," Mr. Tillerson said in a speech to the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars, a Washington think-tank. "As a businessman it is hard to speak favourably about any new tax. But a carbon tax strikes me as a more direct, a more transparent and a more effective approach."

Of course, it took the press all of seven months to discover that Exxon hadn't actually "dropped its funding of lobby groups which deny the science of climate change."  The corporation's line of attack had merely changed. Instead of attacking the science of climate change exclusively, they'd greenwash, then attack cap-and-trade as well.

But what about the seemingly confusing Exxon call for a carbon tax? It'd still still cost polluters money, when a world convinced that global warming wasn't real wouldn't cost anymore than an ongoing ad campaign. It would seem to make more sense to just hold the denier position.

Did I mention that the Arctic has 50% of all the world's undiscovered natural gas and natural gas liquid reserves?

In July of this year, Reuters financial blogger Christopher Swann wrote that Exxon's pursuit of a carbon tax was just a way to sell lots and lots of natural gas, by adding a penalty to the competing coal industry. Gas prices were down and the industry was taking a hit. "The failure of the US Congress to place a price on carbon -- which promised to catapult demand for clean-burning gas -- is a bigger worry still," Swann wrote. "Exxon's own number-crunchers assume a $30 a tonne price for carbon over the next 10 years, leading electric utilities to ditch coal for natural gas."

Moving up to the present, a very comprehensive report by Reuters published yesterday shows that increased drilling in the Arctic may have monumental risks. "In the wake of BP's catastrophic leak in the Gulf of Mexico this spring, Russian officials and experts warn an oil spill under the ice could turn out far worse than one in warmer deepwater climates," the wire service reports. "Arctic conditions -- remoteness, fragile ecosystems, darkness, sub-zero temperatures, ice, high winds -- make dealing with an oil spill a massive task." Natural gas drilling poses similar risks.

So now Exxon will have to change tactics again. Having greenwashed themselves into self-serving carbon tax advocates, they'll now get their biostitutes to argue that an Arctic spill or leak is just this side of impossible and/or no real danger to the environment. Because the drilling and the carbon tax must go forward. They'll have to convince all those new Tea Partiers in Washington that the word "tax" isn't automatically evil, but they have deep pockets -- within which reside the GOP old guard -- so they'll probably get the votes they need. Holdouts will be from the coal-producing states, but surely something can be done to swing them their way -- a little lobbying on behalf of a pointless law involving the Ten Commandments maybe or a new something-or-other named after Ronald Reagan. Maybe help with legislation attacking Latinos or Muslims. Or just a big fat sack of campaign cash. Surely, they can be bought at some price.

And just think, if a carbon tax is less effective at reducing emissions than cap-and-trade -- and experts say a tax is inferior -- then all that Arctic Ocean water may just keep opening wider and wider. Screwing up the planet to make more money is a lot of work, but for ExxonMobil, it's worth it.

As I said, there is no better example of human foolishness.


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