1981 Internal Exxon “CO2 Position Statement”

On May 15, 1981, Henry Shaw, a manager with Exxon Research & Engineering’s Technology Feasibility center, sent a “Preliminary Statement of Exxon’s Position on the Growth of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide” to Edward. E David Jr., president of the Exxon Research and Engineering Company.

The inter-office correspondence outlined Exxon’s “current position on the CO2 Greenhouse effect” in preparation for the Exxon Energy Research & Development Symposium in San Francisco, California on May 19, 1981. It states that a possible doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere could result in a global temperature increase of 3 degrees celsius, causing “major shifts in rainfall/agriculture” and melting of polar ice. The briefing predicts that a doubling of CO2 could occur within 100 years and that “above normal climatic fluctuations” will be measurable by 2000. Recognizing the consequences of CO2 emissions, the authors acknowledge “an orderly transition to non-fossil fuel technologies” could be a realistic future scenario.

However, despite Exxon’s awareness of climate change and the greenhouse effect, they remain committed to fossil fuel-oriented technology and scientific complacency. For example, the authors write, “should restrictions on fossil fuel use be deemed necessary,” the timeline of 100 years is “sufficient time to study the problem before corrective action is required.” Regarding the development of synthetic fuels, the authors diminish the “very small” impact of synthetics, highlighting estimated reductions in the CO2 “doubling time…by only 5 years.” But while Exxon emphasizes the extended timeline for action, they also highlight their contributions to a 10-year study by the U.S Government to reduce “large scientific uncertainties and recommend appropriate energy policy.”

Contradicting later Exxon statements and actions, this briefing documents the company’s awareness of the greenhouse effect, fossil fuel’s contributions to it, and how Exxon plays a role in mitigation. With a confidence in climate science and modeling, conducted both internally and with the U.S. Government, Exxon’s research team was more than aware of the consequences of fossil fuel emissions.

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