Big Oil Needs to Take Responsibility for Climate Change -- I Did
A new study by Harvard researchers looked at ExxonMobil communications from the past 40 years to analyze the corporation's rhetoric on climate change. The study's authors, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, found a systemic narrative by the company focused on promoting global warming as a "risk" caused by consumer demand for its products. The fact, however, is that climate change is not a risk, but a reality caused by the burning of ExxonMobil's product -- fossil fuels. The corporation's messaging is the equivalent of the tobacco industry's efforts to shift the blame and merely play the role of passive supplier to consumers.
Well, I guess you could say ExxonMobil's messaging was effective, as I have taken responsibility for my involvement in climate change; in December 2020, after five years of working for the company, I resigned and took a job supporting the clean energy transition. Despite leaving the fossil fuel industry, I wholeheartedly believe they are uniquely positioned to help solve the climate challenge and be a leader in the energy transition. And that is exactly why I had to leave, because I did not see them taking that opportunity to be a part of the solution.
"I was hopeful each time a reshuffling of business priorities was announced that the company would broaden its portfolio to be an energy company. But year after year, ExxonMobil doubled down on remaining an oil and gas company."
I never thought I would work in the oil and gas industry. It was certainly not promoted as a viable career path for an environmental engineer looking to save the world. But as a bright-eyed college engineering graduate, I felt that it was more important for me to try to make a positive impact from within the industry rather than bang on the doors outside, screaming for change. So in 2015, I accepted a job at ExxonMobil.
Over the course of five years, I survived two significant oil price downturns and multiple reorganizations of the corporation in response. The strategy was always some form of budget reduction or plan to increase production. Blatantly missing from the strategy every time was any sort of commitment to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint, a gap that did not go unnoticed by employees like me. I was hopeful each time a reshuffling of business priorities was announced that the company would broaden its portfolio to be an energy company. But year after year, ExxonMobil doubled down on remaining an oil and gas company.
"After a year of living [and working] in Guyana, I came to the conclusion that the work I was doing was not benefitting the country or its people in the way I had hoped."
The breaking point for me came after I spent a year living in Georgetown, Guyana, where I worked on the team responsible for obtaining environmental approvals for the first oil and gas projects in the country. As an employee, senior management told me constantly that the work I was doing was lifting people out of poverty because we were providing energy to people who needed it. I decided to test firsthand if what they were telling me was actually true.
Every day when I read the news I was bombarded with local stories about how Exxon was destroying the environment in the eyes of the Guyanese people. I witnessed the results of a fraudulent election that played out over five months and have no doubt it was partially, if not fully, driven by the desire to exert power over a soon-to-be major oil producing country. Most of the locals I met were skeptical and fearful of the industry, which I could not blame them for. Look no further than Guyana's neighbor Venezuela -- the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world -- that was once one of the richest economies in South America, and is now one of the poorest. After a year of living in Guyana, I came to the conclusion that the work I was doing was not benefitting the country or its people in the way I had hoped.
"The fossil fuel industry needs to confront a future where their products may not be welcome or needed, and find a way to diversify and be part of the solution, or risk being left behind."
Access to affordable and reliable energy is absolutely critical to economic development and better education and health. Nearly 800 million people around the world live without access to electricity, and that number is expected to increase as the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed progress made in recent years in the developing world. It's a noble thought to dedicate one's career to dismantling energy poverty, but that did not end up being my reality. In fact, this work was pulling me further and further away from the reasons I became an environmental engineer in the first place.
The fossil fuel industry is currently at a tipping point. Just look at what happened during one 24-hour period in late May: investors were successful in a historic vote that forced ExxonMobil to add two outsiders to its board of directors after years of activists trying to get the company to change its business strategy; Chevron's shareholders voted to force the company to create a plan to cut emissions generated by the use of its product; and Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to dramatically accelerate its decarbonization plans. The latter represents the first time a company -- not a government -- was ordered to reduce its emissions.
"The industry has a huge opportunity in front of it to make meaningful change, especially since the energy sector is responsible for nearly three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions."
In a further blow to the industry, the International Energy Agency (IEA), an organization originally founded to ensure the security of global oil supplies, dropped a bombshell report in May stating there should be no new investment in fossil fuels after this year to meet climate targets. These actions are not simply coincidences. They are signals that pressure is building for the fossil fuel sector to decarbonize, and fast. It is going to take transformative behavioral, technological, and legislative changes to achieve the milestones laid out in the IEA report, which will be further complicated as the rapidly developing world continues to rely on fossil fuels to provide cheap, reliable energy for their growing populations. And while the IEA report is only one example of a pathway to get there, the message is clear: business as usual will mean no business at all. And, as if that wasn't enough, just over a month later, an Exxon lobbyist was secretly recorded discussing the company's lobbying tactics on climate, resulting in further distrust in the industry and calls for Congress to investigate. The fossil fuel industry needs to confront a future where their products may not be welcome or needed, and find a way to diversify and be part of the solution, or risk being left behind.
"I commend the multiple net-zero commitments the industry has already made ... but clearly it is not enough. Our communities, shareholders, and employees are demanding more."
The industry has a huge opportunity in front of it to make meaningful change, especially since the energy sector is responsible for nearly three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions. Many fossil fuel companies say that they cannot enter the renewable space because they do not have a competitive advantage there. I completely disagree with that notion. In fact, I think the industry has an incredible advantage in that space. At their fingertips are billions of dollars of capital, decades of knowledge and experience in executing major energy projects all over the world, and a skilled and motivated workforce. Existing infrastructure could be repurposed, such as co-locating electric vehicle charging stations at gas stations and using pipelines to transport cleaner fuels and captured carbon. Engineering expertise in liquid fuels could be used to develop biofuels. And no industry has more knowledge of the subsurface, which can be deployed to scale up carbon capture and storage.
I commend the multiple net-zero commitments the industry has already made, and the commitments to invest in cleaner energy and technologies, but clearly it is not enough. Our communities, shareholders, and employees are demanding more.
So the question I pose to the industry is this: I have taken responsibility for my involvement in climate change, when will you?