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Tina Casey headshot

Is ExxonMobil Finally Standing Up For Climate Science, Or Just Showing Up Coal?

By Tina Casey

After years of delay and obfuscation, ExxonMobil is finally showing signs of giving up its fight against climate science. In the latest development, last week ExxonMobil threw a monkey wrench into ALEC's plans for lobbying the Trump administration to relax global warming emissions. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is an influential conservative lobbying group known for writing model legislation for state legislators to duplicate.

In an interesting twist, ExxonMobil is an ALEC member, and the company holds a seat on the ALEC task force that spearheaded the global warming effort. However, the disagreement over climate change doesn't necessarily mean it's splitsville for ExxonMobil and ALEC.

ExxonMobil and climate science

For those of you new to the topic, ExxonMobil has a decades-long track record of supporting efforts to undermine climate science. Criticism of the company's stance on climate change reached a boiling point in 2015, when news reports indicated that ExxonMobil was sitting on its own research confirming the link between human activity, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, as early as the 1970s.

Among other problems, the failure to disclose that information opened ExxonMobil up to charges that it deliberately mislead investors on risks.

A peer-reviewed Harvard study published last summer also concluded that "ExxonMobil misled non-scientific audiences about climate science."

What's all this about ALEC?

Up to this point, ALEC has been ExxonMobil's steadfast ally in the fight against climate science.

ExxonMobil has stood by ALEC in recent years, even after a significant number of other high profile members defected over the organization's extremist positions on "stand your ground" gun rights laws and its pushback against climate science, among other issues.

ALEC saw a wave of defections in 2012 including McDonald’s  Kraft, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Intuit and Amazon. By 2014 the organization PR Watch counted 80 companies leaving ALEC. The list swelled to more than 100 in 2016.

ALEC pushes to relax climate regulations, ExxonMobil pushes back, ALEC backs off

The rift between ExxonMobil and ALEC began showing last month, when Bloomberg reported that ALEC was joining forces with the coal company Peabody Energy Corp. to "prod" EPA into rolling back its 2009 endangerment finding. In that finding, EPA affirmed that "greenhousegases in the atmosphere endanger both the public health and the environment."

As part of the rollback effort, ALEC's Task Torce on Energy, Environment and Agriculture recently drafted a resolution on climate change that calls for a reconsideration of the 2009 endangerment finding. The ALEC resolution questions the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists. Here's a snippet from the draft:

...research has shown that recent changes in temperatures, sea level rise, and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are not unusual in the historic and geophysical record...

Despite its history of fostering climate science denial, ExxonMobil seems to have drawn a line at the ALEC proposal. Earlier this week The Hill reported that ExxonMobil planned to vote against the ALEC climate resolution.

The Hill cited a letter from ExxonMobil to its fellow members on the ALEC task force, in which the company appeared to accept the scientific consensus on climate change:

“...we are concerned by the language of the resolution, especially relating to climate science, and do not support the resolution,” Kenneth Freeman, ExxonMobil’s manager of United States government relations, wrote in the Monday letter...

Apparently ALEC caved to the pressure. A vote on the resolution was scheduled for last Thursday, but the resolution was withdrawn "for now" before the final vote took place.

...but whither ExxonMobil?

Other big players in the petroleum and natural gas markets -- Royal Dutch Shell and BP -- have already quit ALEC. The organization can ill afford another defection from the fossil fuel sector.

However, If ALEC wants to keep ExxonMobil on its membership roll, it might want to communicate its desires with The Heartland Institute.

Heartland has long been instrumental in creating and amplifying anti-science messaging about climate change. In a press release last Thursday the organization took credit for drafting the ALEC resolution:

...the sponsor of the resolution, Rep. John Piscopo (R-CT), along with Bette Grande, a research fellow for The Heartland Institute who helped draft the resolution, withdrew it for now, saying “the final decision on this issue will be made by the Trump Administration.”

In the same press release, Heartland excoriated ExxonMobil for its role in quashing the resolution. The release encouraged media to share the following quote from Heartland President Tim Huelskamp (yes, that Tim Huelskamp):
“This result is disappointing, but not surprising. Big corporations like ExxonMobil and trade groups like EEI have long been members of the discredited and anti-energy global warming movement. They’ve put their profits and ‘green’ virtue signaling above sound science and the interests of their customers.

Wait, what? Since when did ExxonMobil become a warrior in the fight against global warming?

ExxonMobil shows up against coal

If you look at ExxonMobil's role in the shale gas boom, and then look at the role that cheap natural gas has played in driving coal power plants out of business, the company's stand on global warming takes on a definite green hue -- as in greenbacks, that is.

As long as ExxonMobil can tout natural gas as "cleaner" than coal, it has a clear interest in helping climate advocates keep the 2009 endangerment finding intact.

That's nice, but it doesn't let ExxonMobil off the carbon emissions hook. Natural gas is cleaner than coal as far as power plant emissions go, but there are global and local environmental issues all along the supply chain that add up to a hot mess of unsustainability.

Add the company's growing interest in petrochemicals, and it's not so clear that ExxonMobil is the climate warrior that Heartland makes it out to be.

One thing that does emerge from the Huelskamp statement: Heartland has just done ExxonMobil a huge public relations favor. A dis from Heartland is a badge of honor for climate activists, and the Huelskamp statement puts ExxonMobil squarely in that camp.

Whether that favor was intentional or not remains to be seen. There is a more simple explanation. Perhaps the funding stream from ExxonMobil to Heartland really has dried up, and the organization has nothing to lose by putting all its eggs in the coal basket.

As for ALEC, just last year ExxonMobil was listed as a top sponsor at the organization's 2016 annual meeting. For that matter, coal giant Peabody Energy is also an ALEC member -- and a member of that same Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force.

The relatively minor dustup over the ALEC resolution could be just the beginning of an epic pie fight between Peabody and ExxonMobil, two companies that not too long ago were firmly allied against climate science.

Stay tuned.

Photo: ExxonMobil refinery, Baytown, Texas 2012 by Roy Luck/flickr.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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