As It Happens

What did Exxon Mobil know about climate change? A lot, apparently

Publicly, Exxon Mobil had long downplayed the certainty of global warming. But internally, the oil company was tracking climate change closely to see how it might affect their bottom line. We now know this, thanks to a year-long investigation published in the Los Angeles Times.
Susanne Rust co-wrote a recent article in the Los Angeles Times that details Exxon Mobil's PR strategy on climate change. It focuses primarily on Exxon's presence in the Canadian Arctic. (Susanne Rust/Tom Cohen/Associated Press)

In the late 1980s, oil company Exxon Mobil was doing groundbreaking work that a lot of others weren't yet doing: They were studying the effects of climate change.

But their research wasn't trying to prove what kind of damage global warming would have on humans and nature. They were looking at the effects it might have on their planning, operations and, ultimately, their bottom line.

It's a revelation that comes from a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, in partnership with Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. The investigative story shows that, while Exxon Mobil was dismissing climate change science in its public relations, it was relying on the science to predict how it might affect profits.

And, in some instances how the company might actually benefit from climate change.

"While they were saying 'No big deal here, don't believe any of these projections,' they were actually using those projections internally, to figure out how to build their own infrastructure," says reporter Susanne Rust, who spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off.

Environmental group Greenpeace stage a protest at the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co's Valdez, Alaska terminal in 1991. (Carey Anderson/Associated Press)

Rust spent a year with a team of reporters working on the piece, which focuses primarily on Exxon's presence in Canada's Arctic, specifically in the Beaufort Sea. Rust says Exxon was trying to measure the negative outcomes caused by climate change, and how it might affect the company's operations.

"They had built infrastructure -- buildings, processing plants, pump stations, pipelines -- on frozen ground, and [understood] the world was going to warm, according to these projections. The permafrost below them, which was sort of anchoring these buildings into place, was going to begin to thaw," she says.

This small unnamed lake in the Northwest Territories is just one of a new wave of giant-sized permafrost slumps that are changing the territory's landscape because of climate change. (Scott Zolkos/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

But Exxon wasn't just looking at pitfalls. They were also studying the positives that climate change could offer.

"In the Beaufort Sea, they understood there was a ton of oil and gas that hadn't been tapped yet, lying underneath the ice in the Arctic. It was too difficult and too expensive to get into it. So, what they understood was that, sea ice would begin to melt as the planet began to warm, and it would become accessible at some point… and [that] it could actually reduce the exploration and construction costs by 30 to 50 per cent," she says.

Rust says the basis of the story was formed from hundreds of internal documents that she and a team of reporters tracked down. One location was at Calgary's Glenbow Museum, where they found key documents at the Imperial Oil collection. But she said the easiest place to find information for the story was right under their noses.

"The world wide internet -- it's amazing what you can find when you do some Google searches."

For more on their investigation, take a listen to our interview. You can also read more here

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