In 1978, a young chemical engineer named Edward Garvey was hired by Exxon to develop a research project aboard a supertanker called the Esso Atlantic. Outfitted with an array of sampling instruments, the ship crisscrossed the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf, measuring carbon-dioxide concentrations in the air and in the ocean. The goal, according to Garvey, was “to make an important contribution to the understanding of CO2 climate science.”
Garvey described the supertanker project on Wednesday during a forum convened by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, titled “Oil Is the New Tobacco.” The forum examined the contradictions between Exxon’s internal approach to global warming, which the company began to take seriously as early as the late 1970s, when it invested in projects like the Esso Atlantic; and its public campaign to cast doubt on climate science, which began about decade later. In recent months Exxon has tried to distract from its checkered history, insisting that inquiries are an affront to free speech. Wednesday’s event indicated that at least some Democrats are not so easily put off.
“Just like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris before them, Exxon Mobile said one thing in public, and something else in private,” testified Naomi Oreskes, a professor at Harvard and co-author of a history of climate skepticism called Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes traced the history of climate-change denial back to the late 1980s, to a Washington, DC–based think tank, the George C Marshall Institute, founded by a former tobacco-industry consultant. The institute applied the “tobacco strategy” to block action on climate, producing reports that challenged the scientific consensus around global warming. Exxon became a major funder of the institute and other denial groups in the 1990s, and played a “leading” role in the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group created “with a specific goal of preventing the US Congress from signing the Kyoto protocol,” Oreskes recounted. While Exxon claims it’s stopped funding such groups, Oreskes pointed out that it’s still a member of three trade associations that advocate against climate action: the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and the American Petroleum Institute.
The forum adds to the pressure Exxon is already under from the state attorneys general who’ve opened investigations into whether the company deliberately misled investors about the risks of climate change. Prosecutors in New York and Massachusetts have issued subpoenas requesting numerous financial records and other documents, modeling their efforts on the litigation against tobacco companies, which was also led by state attorneys general and resulted in a $200 billion settlement. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice, which won its own racketeering suit against the tobacco companies, has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into Exxon’s behavior. Congressional hearings were a key part of efforts to hold Big Tobacco accountable, too; but with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, Wednesday’s forum may be as close to an official hearing as is possible.