JEFFREY BALL for The Wall Street Journal, 6/15/2005
Exxon Chief Makes a Cold Calculation on Global Warming
BP, Shell Concede Ground as Raymond Funds Skeptics and Fights Emission Cap
ANNANDALE, N.J. (June 14) — At Exxon Mobil Corp.'s laboratories here, there isn't a solar panel or windmill in sight. About the closest Exxon's scientists get to "renewable" energy is perfecting an oil that Exxon could sell to companies operating wind turbines.
Oil giants such as BP PLC and Royal Dutch/Shell Group are trumpeting a better-safe-than-sorry approach to global warming. They accept a growing scientific consensus that fossil fuels are a main contributor to the problem and endorse the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which caps emissions from developed nations that have ratified it. BP and Shell also have begun to invest in alternatives to fossil fuels.
Not Exxon. Openly and unapologetically, the world's No. 1 oil company disputes the notion that fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. Along with the Bush administration, Exxon opposes the Kyoto accord and the very idea of capping global-warming emissions. Congress is debating an energy bill that may be amended to include a cap, but the administration and Exxon say the costs would be huge and the benefits uncertain. Exxon also contributes money to think tanks and other groups that agree with its stance.
Exxon publicly predicts that solar and wind energy will continue to provide less than 1% of the world's energy supply in 2025, a subject that others shy away from. Even if fossil fuels are the chief global-warming culprit, Exxon argues, the sensible response is to figure out how to burn them more efficiently.
"We're not playing the issue. I'm not sure I can say that about others," Lee Raymond, Exxon's chairman and chief executive, said in a recent interview at Exxon headquarters in Irving, Texas. "I get this question a lot of times: 'Why don't you just go spend $50 million on solar cells? Charge it off to the public-affairs budget and just say it's like another dry hole?' The answer is: That's not the way we do things."
The 66-year-old Mr. Raymond has emerged as the tallest lightning rod in the debate over global warming. At a London oil-industry dinner in February where he was the guest of honor, Greenpeace protesters poured red wine onto tables and called Mr. Raymond the "No. 1 climate criminal." Mr. Raymond, speaking on the same day the Kyoto treaty took effect, stuck by his prepared speech and called for a "reality check" on the treaty.
Exxon's approach to global warming typifies the bottom-line focus of its entire business. It is slogging away to improve the energy efficiency of its refineries — primarily to cut costs, although this is also shaving global-warming emissions. But it says the business case for making more sweeping changes is still weak. It's a conservative, hard-nosed approach that has helped make Exxon the most profitable oil company in the world, with 2004 net income of $25 billion.
Even at its Annandale research lab, Exxon's focus is on adapting and improving fossil fuels — not replacing them. Its researchers are trying to make cars burn fuel more efficiently and reduce emissions. Some futurists, and the Bush administration, think cars could run on hydrogen some day. Exxon is looking into the idea but puts its research dollars into extracting hydrogen from petroleum, not from water.
A growing chorus of critics says Exxon's strategy is short-sighted. As nations crack down on global-warming emissions, they argue, the foundation of the oil business is threatened because carbon dioxide, the chief suspected global-warming gas, is produced whenever fossil fuel is burned.
"There are two possible scenarios. One is that all the scientists in the world are wrong, in which case there's no climate change, in which case Exxon will do well," says Andrew Logan of Ceres, a Boston-based environmental group that's trying to put shareholder pressure on Exxon to go greener. "But if the scientists are correct and we have to find a way to transform the way we use energy, then Exxon is going to lag significantly behind its competitors."
Exxon isn't ignoring global warming. Besides its research in New Jersey, it has pledged $100 million over a decade for research at Stanford University into what it calls breakthrough "mega-technologies." Among them: capturing carbon dioxide after it's emitted and burying it deep underground. The Stanford researchers are also looking at ways to slash the cost of renewable energy. Exxon believes that if global warming really is a significant environmental problem, the only serious answer will be simple alternatives that even developing nations such as China and India can afford.
Though Exxon is touting the size of its Stanford investment in a new ad campaign, $100 million represents less than two days of Exxon's earnings. Shell says it has spent about $1.5 billion since 1999 building a business in renewable energy, mostly solar and wind power. BP says it has spent $500 million on solar since 2000 and about $30 million on wind over the past three years. Both Shell and BP continue to invest the overwhelming majority of their money in finding and pumping oil and gas.
Their renewable-energy investments are hardly big money makers. BP says its solar business has turned a profit but not its wind business. Shell says wind makes money but not solar. Both say short-term profits aren't the point. Enough is known about the likely contribution of fossil fuels to global warming, they reason, that it's prudent to start diversifying now as a kind of insurance policy. It's "all about growing a business," says Robert Wine, a BP spokesman.
Mr. Raymond disagrees. Spending shareholders' money to diversify into businesses that aren't yet profitable — and that aim to solve a problem his scientists believe may not be significant — strikes the Exxon chief as a sloppy way to run a company. "If I were to ask you if you want to buy an insurance policy, you've got to ask yourself a couple questions. No. 1, what are you trying to insure against? And No. 2, what are you willing to pay on the premium? And I haven't heard a very good answer to either one of those," he says.
In the late 1970s, as oil prices skyrocketed, Exxon diversified into an array of fossil-fuel alternatives, including nuclear and solar energy. In 1983 it opened the lab here in Annandale, a sprawling brick complex with 19 acres of interior space.
But after several years, Exxon still couldn't see prospects for renewable energy turning into a money-maker, especially since oil prices were falling in the 1980s. In the mid-1980s, the company decided to get out of the business and tapped Mr. Raymond, a South Dakota native then in his 40s, to oversee the retrenchment. "I was sent to clean it all up," he recalls. "What all these people are thinking about doing, we did 20 years ago — and spent $1 billion, in dollars of that day, to find out that none of these were economic," he says. "That's why I feel so strongly about it — because I've been there and I've done that."
In 1988, the United Nations established a panel of scientists to study whether the science justified clamping down on greenhouse-gas emissions, so called because they are thought to create a blanket in the atmosphere that traps reflected heat from the Earth's surface just as a greenhouse locks in heat. The panel's conclusions helped spawn the Kyoto treaty.
Exxon had already hired a Harvard astrophysicist named Brian Flannery in 1980 to look into global warming using mathematical models. In 1987, he was joined in the climate-science group by Haroon Kheshgi, a chemical engineer who had come to Exxon the previous year and had earlier worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Over the next several years the pair dug deeper into global-warming research and Exxon made grants to several prestigious universities, starting with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Flannery says he told the MIT researchers: "Embrace the uncertainty in all of this."
On Mr. Kheshgi's office wall are pictures of a climbing trip he took to a Peruvian glacier in 1987. He has also climbed glaciers in New Zealand, where he notes glaciers are receding. But he insists it's not clear that human-induced emissions are the explanation. The link is "not that simple," he says.
Messrs. Flannery and Kheshgi were among the scores of scientists who helped write the U.N. panel's latest broad assessment of climate science, published in 2001. It said atmospheric concentrations of CO2 had jumped by 31% since the start of the industrial age and the 1990s were "very likely the warmest decade in instrumental record." Most of the observed warming of the past 50 years, it said, is "likely" the result of "human activities." Still, the panel said, models of climate change remain a work in progress. Among the remaining uncertainties it cited is to what extent "natural factors" unrelated to human activity play a role.
The Exxon scientists say they agree with much of the assessment. But they argue that policy makers often disregard the uncertainties noted in it. In 2003, Mr. Kheshgi and a University of Illinois scientist published a paper in an American Geophysical Union journal arguing that oceans, plants and soil suck up more of the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil-fuel burning than previously thought. As a result, the paper said, models that predict a big buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere need to be rethought.
That's the kind of research Mr. Raymond, himself a chemical engineer, likes to cite. "Our view is it's yet to be shown how much of this is really related to the activities of man," he says. "The world has gone through many cycles of climate change that man had nothing to do with, because man didn't exist."
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Messrs. Flannery and Kheshgi argue in their papers for more research into how the world can live with, rather than avoid, the effects of global warming. That concept, known as "adaptation," worries some environmentalists because they fear it will deflect attention from reducing fossil-fuel emissions. But it's one of the subjects that the U.N. climate-change panel has studied, and Mr. Kheshgi argues it's only prudent. "Climate change might pose serious risks," he says. "But it might not."
Even some who advocate stricter curbs on emissions profess respect for Exxon's scientific work. "These are smart guys who shoot straight. I'm generally pretty impressed that their science is above-board and serious," says David Victor, who heads an energy-policy research program at Stanford. The program receives money from BP but isn't part of Stanford's Exxon-funded program.
But most scientists take an approach to global warming that is fundamentally different from Exxon's: They choose to emphasize what is known, rather than what isn't. They believe it's clear by now that fossil-fuel emissions are warming the earth and leading to dangerous consequences — or clear enough, anyway, that it's more prudent to act than to wait until the science is airtight.
Last week representatives of scientific societies from 11 countries, including the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S., released an open letter saying global warming is prompting changes "such as rising sea levels, retreating glaciers, and changes to many physical and biological systems." The letter said humans are likely to blame and called the science "sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action."
What particularly riles the green movement is Exxon's funding of several groups that continue to argue that the science doesn't justify caps. Among them is the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which received a total of $465,000 in 2003 from Exxon and the company's charitable foundation, according to a corporate-giving report that Exxon posts on its Web site.
The antiregulatory Washington think tank has long opposed calls for a cap. Last week, one of its senior fellows, Iain Murray, wrote a column on a Web site calling the recent letter by the science academies an example of "climate alarmism" that has "needlessly thrown away the academies' reputations for unbiased information."
Several years ago, the institute filed a lawsuit against the Clinton administration challenging a report the administration had released highlighting concerns about global warming. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe also was among the parties to the suit. Sen. Inhofe has called the idea that fossil fuels are contributing to global warming a "hoax."
What does Exxon's Mr. Flannery think about that? "If they're expressing a view that there's no risk that needs to be addressed, then yes, we would disagree with that," he says.
For his part, Mr. Raymond downplays the importance of the money Exxon spends on groups that talk up doubts about climate science and climate caps. "The facts are you don't have to spend a lot of money to aggravate the proponents," he says. But he doesn't apologize for Exxon's role in keeping the debate alive.
"We think we have a responsibility," he says. "If we think people are about to make some bad policy decisions that are going to have a big impact for a long period of time, somebody's got to say something."
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