The top executive at ExxonMobil Corp. spoke out Wednesday for the first time to deny charges that the company had misled the public for years about its early understanding of the risks of climate change.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chairman, president and chief executive officer.
At issue is how Exxon [NYSE:XOM] handled early warnings about the risks of the greenhouse effect that its own researchers presented to the company's top management starting nearly 40 years ago, as described in recent reporting by InsideClimate News and others.
Tillerson said the company does not want the matter to become a "distraction" as talks on a global climate treaty are about to conclude.
"They're dealing with a period of time that happened decades ago," he said. "I'm not sure how helpful it would be for me to talk about it, particularly as we're leading up to some very important meetings that are going to occur in Paris here in just a few weeks. I don't want to be a distraction. I really don't want this to be a distraction. There's some serious issues that need to be talked about."
ICN's eight-month investigation assembled details of Exxon's early understanding of the emerging science of climate change, casting a new light on the company's subsequent campaign to postpone aggressive climate policies by sowing public doubt about the science. A separate investigation by a team from the Los Angeles Times and the Columbia Journalism School reached similar conclusions.
After reading those news articles, which were based largely on internal Exxon documents from the 1970s and 1980s, several members of Congress, as well as all three Democratic candidates for president, asked the Justice Department to investigate.
Members of Congress have also asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to look into the matter. So have climate leaders such as former vice president Al Gore, scholars including Naomi Oreskes of Harvard and Robert Brulle of Drexel University, and the heads of 40 prominent environmental and social justice advocacy groups.
Tillerson went to a friendly venue, Fox Business News, to lay out his response. He called the charges "pretty unfounded, you know without any substance at all."
ICN's series on Exxon's early research into global warming showed that the company was at the forefront of climate change research as early as 1978, long before the general public was aware of the looming crisis. Its cutting-edge research helped confirm the emerging consensus that burning fossil fuels would warm the climate, posing significant risks to the company and eventually to civilization. Exxon later pivoted to the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing public doubt about the need for urgent action.
Tillerson did not dispute that Exxon had led the early science, just as ICN described.
"We were spending a lot of time trying to understand this issue in the early days," he said. "We were very open with the work we were doing. Most of it was done in collaboration with academic institutions and many government agencies for us to understand this better. And I think as we began to understand that, and people began to think about policy choices, we had a view on policy choices which has not changed very much over the years, and we've been very open about that."
Tillerson did not go into Exxon's well-documented history of support for a network of lobbyists, advocates and faux experts who have been accused by mainstream scientists of a running a long campaign of misinformation.
Nor did he address whether Exxon had adequately disclosed the material risks of climate change to its own business in regulatory filings during the time when its scientists were discussing those risks in detail with top management.
Outlining Exxon's view of the future of energy, he made no mention of the climate implications of continued reliance on fossil fuels.
"I do think that we are have been blessed with an enormous resource opportunity in this country," he said, "and the industry has seized that opportunity with this energy transformation that has occurred over the last roughly five years. You know we've moved from an era of energy scarcity where we were more concerned about sourcing our supply from countries around the world, some of which we knew were going to be unstable from time to time. Now we've moved to an era of energy abundance. And I think the forward-looking people will be looking at how do we take this era of energy abundance now and secure our energy future from an energy security standpoint for decades to come because the resource is enormous."