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Tina Casey headshot

ExxonMobil Quits Climate Change Denial Group, But Don't Be Fooled

By Tina Casey

The Intertubes are buzzing over news that global oil giant ExxonMobil has finally quit ALEC, the powerful lobbying organization known for its promotion of climate change denial. That's good news in terms of driving down support for the U.S. coal industry. However, it's not necessarily a big step forward for climate action.

ExxonMobil diversifies...into natural gas

Royal Dutch Shell, BP and other legacy oil and gas companies are diversifying into wind and solar with shovels-in-the-ground projects, but so far ExxonMobil has refrained from attaching its name to anything concrete. Instead, it has been plowing millions into research that focuses more generally on reducing  emissions.

The broad focus on reducing emissions supports ExxonMobil's growing interest in natural gas. Though best known for its roots in The Standard Oil Company, ExxonMobil has also been in the vanguard of the U.S. shale gas revolution.

Even if the global market for natural gas as a fuel begins to stall, ExxonMobil has a fallback plan: plastics.  Triple Pundit took note of the strategy last year:

...ExxonMobil is planning to build what is reported to be the world’s largest ethane cracker. It is on track to be constructed in the Corpus Christie area of Texas, unless local protestors succeed in blocking it.

Crackers use high heat to break ethane down into the chemical building block ethylene, which is this:

Ethylene is the most commonly produced petrochemical. It is the root chemical for a kingdom of plastics, resins, adhesives and synthetic products used in virtually every aspect of modern life. It’s used as the basis for plastics like beverage containers, food wrap, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyester, and chemicals like those found in antifreeze, solvents, urethanes and pharmaceuticals.

As of this writing, the $10 billion (yes, that's $10 billion) project is still moving forward. It will also include facilities for producing polyethylene and monoethylene.

Several years ago the company also undertook a major expansion of its Baytown, Texas petrochemical facility, and last spring Platt's listed several other new ExxonMobil projects aimed at leveraging access to cheap shale gas.

All of this activity is in anticipation of a global rebound in the plastics market through 2040, fueled in part by growing demand for convenience products in Asia, India and elsewhere.

ExxonMobil could also piggyback on the rapid growth of the hydrogen fuel cell field. Although renewable hydrogen is rapidly beginning to emerge as an alternative, the primary source of hydrogen today is natural gas.

What's so bad about natural gas?

Natural gas produces less emissions at the burn point than coal, and for that reason it has been widely touted as a cleaner fuel -- especially among natural gas stakeholders.

ExxonMobil has been aggressively leveraging promoting the emissions advantage to help push coal out of the power generation field. Among other efforts, the company has voiced support for the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

The problem is that natural gas is not necessarily a sustainable solution. Reducing emissions from smokestacks is all well and good, but there is mounting evidence of local air and water impacts as well as poor public health outcomes and other risks related to natural gas drilling operations.

In addition, the massive leakage discovered at a California natural gas storage facility in 2016 underscores the impact of natural gas operations on climate change.

From the wellhead through to transportation and storage, leaks and other "fugitive emissions" of the potent greenhouse gas methane have historically been a feature, not a bug, of natural gas operations.

The Rocky Mountain Institute explains:

Simply put, the high levels of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are responsible for one of the most urgent climate “forcing” problems we face today. Natural gas, long touted as a cleaner and more climate-friendly alternative to burning coal, is expected to continue to increase as market forces drive the replacement of coal. However, methane leaks of just 3 percent from the natural gas supply chain double the carbon impact of gas, rendering it on par with coal from an environmental perspective.

The climate change denial fox in the henhouse

This brings us back around to ALEC and the climate change denial movement.

For those of you new to the topic, ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council. Loosely described as a conservative lobbying organization, ALEC is better known as a "bill mill." Its effectiveness lies in its ability to write model bills that advance climate change denial and other interests of its members, and to enlist state-level representatives who shepherd those bills through to passage.

Among ALEC's supporters are the notoriously conservative Koch brothers, whose family business leans heavily on fossil fuels. By 2012 ALEC's extremist position on climate change and other issues began to conflict with the corporate social responsibility movement, leading Pepsico, Amazon, and other high profile members to exit the group.

Earlier this year, ExxonMobil put ALEC on notice that the company could not support its climate change denial position.

To be clear, ALEC's official statement on global warming is not a straight-up refusal to acknowledge the evidence. Instead, the organization takes the now-familiar climate change denial position that we don't know enough about global warming to justify policies that curb greenhouse gas emissions:

Climate change is a historical phenomenon and the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions.

In particular, ALEC opposes government policies that accelerate decarbonization:
Mandates to transform the energy sector and use renewable energy sources place the government in the unfair position of choosing winners and losers, keeping alive industries that are dependent on special interest lobbying.

And, this is probably the straw that broke the camel's back, in consideration of ExxonMobil interest in natural gas (emphasis added):
Government programs designed to encourage and advance energy technologies should not reduce energy choices or supply. They should not limit the production of electricity, for example, to only politically preferable technologies.

As of now, that is still the official ALEC position on climate change, and as of this month, ExxonMobil is no longer a member of the organization. According to a spokesperson for the company, its membership expired in June and the company chose not to renew it.

That seems to have gotten some environmental advocates excited, but make no mistake: ExxonMobil is far from ready to give up on fossil fuels.

Photo (cropped): Mike Mozart/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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey