Since the 1980’s the oil and fossil fuel industry has known about the evidence supporting human-driven climate change and the possible repercussions of it. Two years ago, news broke that ExxonMobil knew about the effects of fossil fuels on climate change as early as 1981. Of course, this shouldn’t come as any surprise, as the fossil fuel industry has funded some of the preeminent research into climate science of the last 50 years. It makes sense from a business perspective that a company whose main source of business is based on the future success and availability of a natural resource would be academically interested in that resource. It is in the best interest of the fossil fuel industry to be ahead of any potential risks to their business structure and climate change was high on the list of potential risks as early as the 1980s. Exxon knew about climate change and the exacerbating effects of fossil fuel consumption and production, and continued to conduct business as usual. Shell has recently been accused of knowing the same information regarding climate change, and even associating it with future sea level rise.

Image courtesy of Richard Masoner via Flickr, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Knowledge of climate change at Exxon began in the early 1980s when they were looking to develop a massive oil field off the coast of Indonesia called Natuna. According to a chemical engineer and former employee of Exxon and Mobil named Lenny Bernstein, this occurred more than 7 years before the general knowledge of climate change was understood by their competitors and the public. The account that Bernstein has given regarding Exxon’s knowledge of climate change in the context of the Natuna Oil field points out that Exxon knew about the association of greenhouse gases and CO2 to climate change, and used that knowledge to inform the economic opinion of their investments. Most other fossil fuel companies only acknowledged the risk to future investment that climate change posed through regulation after 1988 when the general public and congress were informed in congressional hearings.

There have long been accusations that the big companies in the fossil fuel sector have been funding advocacy groups that deny the existence of climate change or do not support the idea that human activity is contributing to it. Exxon currently notes that they do not support any group that denies climate change and that their research in the 80s was in the infancy of climate change, but it is not unprecedented for a sector that knows about its negative effects to downplay or work around it.

Recently an internal Shell video from the early 1990s has resurfaced that shows that Shell understood the climate risks associated with fossil fuel extraction and continued to do business. In addition to the video, recently discovered internal Shell documents show that Shell knew that the fossil fuel industry was to blame for the acceleration of climate change and even warned that if action was not taken to slow and avoid the continued acceleration of climate change it may be too late by the time action was taken. Even though this is obvious acknowledgment that they were contributing to a detrimental system, it cannot come as a surprise.

Both Exxon and Shell are some of the biggest fossil fuel companies out there, and will be cautious to know about trends that may affect their business years in advance. The Shell documents show that they were considering the policy implications of climate change related regulation. The fact that these companies were ahead of the curve on discovering and accepting the science behind climate change is not the surprising or morally questionable thing that people should be accepting. The public should pay more attention to the fact that the admissions from Shell that unconventional oil and gas exploration were at odds with a climate conscious future are in stark contrast to their continued support and lobbying for fracking and unconventional fossil fuel exploration.

To be fair to Shell, unconventional fossil fuels are certainly not all bad, fracking generally is more dynamic in its startup and relocation, uses a small above ground footprint, and generally takes place on existing oil fields. Unconventionals (especially fracking) also often are after Natural Gas, which is a much less greenhouse gas intensive fuel than oil. From a national energy security standpoint, unconventional oil and gas exploration and development has allowed the US to become more energy independent and produce more energy on their own terms, reducing dependency on oil-built countries like Saudi Arabia. Natural Gas and unconventional fuel production certainly has its place in the energy profile of the future, but the inconsistencies of such large companies on the compatibility of unconventionals with a sustainable energy future and willingness to hoard information that possibly has wide reaching public health and policy impact is concerning.

In the past, large companies have been targeted heavily by congress when knowledge of harm caused by their industry has been known and not acted on. The tobacco industry was heavily attacked by the public and Congress in the 1990s. The eerie similarity of the defenses of both industries are strong – both claim that the dangers of their products were known and understood by all, and that it is not their responsibility for the damage done. Of course, fossil fuel companies are some of the most well placed companies to drive a low carbon transition moving forward, and their business may depend on it. The transition needs to be made from oil to natural gas, and renewables need to be used wherever possible. Companies such as Shell and Exxon may have known fossil fuels were contributing to climate change, but not using this information to create value for their companies by driving the curve to low carbon energy usage while denying the facts is the real public disappointment.

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