For 16 years, Dar-Lon Chang worked as an engineer at ExxonMobil. Fresh out of graduate school, he was by all accounts exactly the type of person the company is known for hiring: smart, driven, diligent.
From his base at Exxon’s sprawling campus outside Houston, Chang helped the company maximize production at far-flung oil and gas projects, from Guyana to Qatar to America’s fracking fields.
He’d had an interest in alternative energy since his college days, and thought science and technology would blaze a path towards a future without fossil fuels. Exxon, he believed, could help lead the way. When he could, Chang tried to nudge the company along in small ways, holding out the hope that change would come.
But with each passing year, Chang watched the climate crisis grow more urgent, while the company he had devoted his career to only deepened its commitment to oil and gas. Eventually, he became disillusioned.
So in 2019, without any prospect of future employment, he resigned, packed up with his wife and daughter, who had known no home other than Houston, and moved to a net-zero community outside Denver built around environmentally-conscious living.
He had hoped to find a job in the renewable energy sector, but meanwhile, he poured himself into his new Geos Neighborhood, where residents hold monthly meetings to discuss how to lighten their load on the planet. A small herd of goats graze on undeveloped lots, the community’s fossil-free answer to weed control. A blue Nissan Leaf and a black Tesla Model 3 sit side-by-side in his garage, plugged into chargers fed by solar panels on his roof.
“I didn’t want the rest of my career to be wasted on something that I felt was making the world worse, when there was all the possibility to make things better,” he said recently.
Chang belongs to a generation of engineers, environmental scientists and computer developers who entered the fossil fuel sector just as the world was waking up to the grave threat posed by the industry’s products. While oil companies are already under pressure from investors, governments and society at large, Chang’s story reflects another emerging challenge for the industry: a younger generation of workers who are worried about climate change and their own role in determining what kind of future their children will inherit.
“We as an industry underestimate the intense pressure that oil and gas employees are under,” said Tisha Schuller, founding principal at Adamantine Energy and the former head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Schuller has argued that the industry needs to engage with its growing workforce of millennials, who, she noted, are more likely to be concerned about climate change and are facing peer pressure over their work.
“I feel confident that more than half of the millennials working in the oil and gas industry are interested in seeing our industry take on an assertive, solution oriented role,” Schuller said.
Exxon has become the corporate embodiment of the industry’s intransigence. It has remained committed to a future of expanding oil and gas production and was the last of the major multinational oil companies to adopt corporate-wide emissions reduction targets, announcing the pledge only in December. And while the company’s finances have crumbled in recent years, it remains by some metrics the largest of the Western investor-owned oil companies.
There is no evidence of any formal movement within Exxon’s ranks agitating for change. But Inside Climate News spoke with people who have worked at Exxon who expressed views similar to Chang’s.
One worker, who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak to the media, described a generational schism, saying she guessed that most employees under the age of 50 thought climate change was a serious issue. She recently left the company.
Another former employee, Enrique Rosero, has said in interviews that he left Exxon last year after being punished for speaking out about climate change. Exxon’s announcements in October that cratering oil prices would force it to cut thousands of jobs globally has delivered more cause for anxiety.
Exxon is not the only company under pressure. At Royal Dutch Shell, a split over how fast the oil giant should pivot towards clean energy has contributed to the departure of several executives in recent months, according to a report by the Financial Times. And BP’s chief executive, Bernard Looney, said last year that concern about climate change on the part of his workforce was part of why he announced a new direction for the company, which has pledged to reduce oil and gas production as it ramps up spending on low-carbon energy.
One of the greatest appeals of a career at Exxon, Chang said, was the chance to work on a diverse range of projects that could help supply the world with energy. But as the climate crisis grew more dire, he said, the company’s management showed no interest and resisted calls to move into lower-carbon products.
Exxon spokesman Casey Norton, responding to questions about the company’s attitude toward employees who pushed for more aggressive action on climate change, said, “We encourage an open dialogue and employees can share their ideas with their supervisors, human resources and colleagues.” He pointed to the company’s efforts to reduce its own emissions, and added that oil and natural gas will continue “to play a significant role for decades in meeting increasing energy demand of a growing and more prosperous global population.”
Chang, while still searching for where to start his new career, said he has no regrets about leaving Exxon.
“I knew that it would be hard to get into the renewable energy industry,” he said, “but I thought that given how time was getting short for my daughter’s childhood, and for taking substantive action that could actually stop the worst consequences of climate change, that the priority was moving to a place where we could make a difference and where my daughter could grow up in a community that was doing something about climate change.”
His Own Challenger Moment
Chang has closely cropped straight black hair and a round face that tends to show a concerned, serious look. At 44, he is a life-long Star Wars fan—he named his daughter after one of the Jedi, the righteous knights who harness the Force for good—and he likened his final years at Exxon to the series’ epic moral struggle.
“I really identified with Finn, the Storm Trooper who was having second thoughts about staying with the empire he grew up with,” he said, “because he saw the atrocities that were being done, and he didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.”
When he was completing his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chang could not find a job in the automotive industry, his preferred field. Some former classmates had gone to work at Exxon, and they recruited him, saying that while the company’s primary business was oil and gas, it also conducted research into nuclear energy, a particular interest of Chang’s, and renewables. “It’s just a matter of market conditions,” he recalls being told.
Chang’s girlfriend at the time, Michelle—now his wife—was drawn to the large Asian community in Houston, where Exxon has its main campus (Fearing an angry reaction to this article, she said she did not want her last name used). Without a better prospect, he accepted a position at the company in 2003.
Exxon is famous for its rigorous work ethic, and in that sense it seemed like a natural fit for Chang. His family immigrated from Taiwan when he was 3 years old, so his father could pursue an engineering degree at Rutgers University, and his father instilled in him a love of math and science that carried on throughout his schooling.
“Just a first class, top student,” said Ty Newell, who taught Chang when he was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. “Everything was perfect on his tests.”
At the university, Chang had formed a student group, the Technological Frontiers Society, that met to discuss how science could help shape the future. He was inspired, he said, by Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, both of whom applied their genius to try to help solve global challenges. Feynman played a critical part in determining what caused the deadly Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, and he helped expose communication failures between NASA management and engineers who had identified problems before the launch. He pursued his investigation despite resistance from the presidential commission he was assisting.
Chang was struck by Feynman’s independence and commitment to the truth, and early in his career at Exxon, when he identified design flaws with a component of a liquified natural gas system, he spoke up. His managers, however, were reluctant to deliver bad news to their supervisors, he said, and rebuffed his efforts to address the problem.
“It made me feel like I was personally experiencing what a Challenger engineer must have been experiencing before the Challenger accident,” he said.
It was Chang’s introduction to Exxon’s top-down culture. Frustrated, he said he raised his concerns directly with the head of his division. As it happened, the executive was receptive, but Chang said he ended up being moved off the project, and was punished through the company’s performance ranking system for going around his managers, even though his concerns were well founded. The demotion effectively placed him on notice that he had to improve his performance or risk losing his job.
“Unfortunately,” he said of his effort, “that was not well received.”
Addicted to Oil
Had Chang looked more closely, he might not have held out as much hope that Exxon would change its course. Not long before he started working there, the company had successfully lobbied the George W. Bush administration to highlight uncertainties about climate science and withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon funneled millions of dollars toward groups that peddled climate denial, even after the company’s own scientists had warned about the grave risks associated with burning fossil fuels.
By the mid-2000s, Exxon executives were pushing back against notions that a transition away from oil was near, whether prompted by a scarcity of new reserves or by competition from alternative fuels and electric vehicles. In 2006, Bush warned that the nation was “addicted to oil” and pledged to fund research into clean energy, catching Exxon by surprise. The company’s management responded with speeches and presentations at public forums, according to the journalist Steve Coll’s book about the company, Private Empire. It also conducted a series of internal reviews that ultimately concluded that breakthroughs in competitive technologies were decades away. The message for the business: stay the course.
At the time, Exxon was on the verge of some of its most profitable years ever. Oil prices soared before the economic crash of 2008 and then recovered relatively quickly, climbing back above $100 per barrel by 2011 and remaining there for the better part of the next three-and-a-half years. Exxon pulled in more than $260 billion in profits over a period of eight years, and spent more than $70 billion on some of the most expensive and controversial new oil and gas reserves, beginning construction on a major new oil sands mine in Canada and purchasing XTO Energy, one of the country’s largest producers of unconventional, or fracked, natural gas.
It was a huge bet on the future of fossil fuels, one that would come to steer Exxon’s direction for years to come.
‘It Was Me Against the World in Houston’
In 2011, the same year Exxon rode soaring oil prices to a $41 billion profit, Chang bought an electric car. “I think it was a real stick-it-to-the-man statement,” said Joanne Homestead, his cousin. “I think he really enjoyed that.”
His previous car was a Mustang. “Yes, to this day, it is a bit shameful for me,” he said bashfully in a recent interview. Buying a Nissan Leaf was like burying the old him, he said, and birthing a new climate evangelist.
But he still worked for Exxon, and he still lived in the capital of the nation’s oil industry. Around the same time, Chang tried to install solar panels on the roof of his home in Sugar Land, Texas, outside Houston. He had lost power for days when Hurricane Ike struck several years earlier, and Michelle had been pregnant at the time. Chang wanted back-up power, and he wanted to lower his carbon footprint, but his homeowner’s association blocked the effort.
“People there were just ideologically opposed to the idea of solar panels,” he said. “It wasn’t just that they saw it as ugly, it was also that they saw it as a threat to their livelihood.” Most people’s jobs, he said, were tied to the oil industry in one way or another.
After Exxon acquired XTO for $41 billion in 2010 and oil prices soared, Chang saw a shift in the corporate culture. His colleagues were less willing to entertain research or investments into alternative energy, he said, less willing to talk about anything that might upset managers and surging profits.
“There was a lot of pressure because we bought XTO to make it work,” he said. In fact, the fracking boom that followed sent natural gas into a sustained period of lower prices that have lasted to this day, making it hard to justify the deal’s price tag. Then-chief executive Rex Tillerson would later say the company had “probably paid too much” for XTO. “They were just focused on making a bad acquisition profitable,” Chang said.
After being transferred off the liquified natural gas project he had raised concerns about, Chang went to work on making wells more productive, focusing mostly on natural gas assets in Qatar. He did well, he said, and in 2012 he was given a new challenge: to help design a well drilling system, “like GPS for drillers.” Because the same system could be used for drilling any type of well, Chang hoped it might be applied not only to oil and gas, but also to geothermal energy, or to wells that could inject carbon dioxide for storage underground.
“I felt like, this is the first time I can contribute to something that can help move Exxon away from fossil fuels,” he said. He discussed the possibilities with co-workers at lunches and meetings, but drew no interest. “The only thing management was interested in was me applying this technology to the roles that we had, and getting as much reduction in drilling costs as we could.”
Asked about Chang’s frustration, Norton, the Exxon spokesman, noted that Chang’s job had nothing to do with the company’s work on lowering emissions. “You should know that oil and gas was Mr. Chang’s job,” Norton said, adding that Chang worked in the company’s exploration and production division, not the research and engineering department, “where the overwhelming majority of our research in carbon capture, and low-emissions technologies occurs.”
By 2015, Chang was feeling increasingly isolated. “It was just me against the world in Houston, me against the world in ExxonMobil,” he said.
He started looking for sustainable communities where he could raise his daughter in a better environment, and found one such place in Colorado. The following year he applied for a job at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, outside Denver.
But he never heard back from the lab, and without a job prospect, he stayed at Exxon. Chang said he had heard rumors that Darren Woods, who replaced Tillerson as chief executive, would change the performance ranking that had punished him for raising concerns about the liquefied gas system, and which other employees have said stifles dissent.
A move to a new corporate campus coincided with a new tone of openness, Chang said, perhaps indicating Exxon’s own sort of Glasnost. He began to speak up about climate change at employee forums, and found a few like-minded colleagues who would approach him to say they agreed with his concern, but that they were reluctant to speak up publicly for fear of retribution.
With the changes, though, there was also a backlash. One fellow engineer brought Chang into his office to inform him that climate scientists were manipulating data to keep their jobs. Other co-workers posted similar comments anonymously on the company’s internal social media platform. The new campus was farther from Chang’s home, with the round-trip distance beyond the range of his electric car. His requests for the company to install chargers went unanswered.
In 2018, Chang said, it became clear that the performance ranking system would remain the same. That fall, Chang’s daughter came home from school one day to report that her teacher had told the class she wanted to teach about climate change but was forbidden from doing so. “That kind of tipped me over the edge,” Chang said, “that I can’t let my daughter continue to grow up in this environment.”
The family put in an order for a house in the Colorado community, and decided to move, whether or not they had jobs to go to. With one foot out the door, Chang spoke up one last time, at a February 2019 meeting about restructuring the company’s upstream division, which oversees drilling and production.
Exxon was at the time planning to expand production by 20-25 percent by 2025, he said, “and I stood up and said, ‘Given that the IPCC report says we need to reduce our emissions in half over the next 11 years, by 2030, in order to have a reasonable chance of avoiding irreversible damage, why are we increasing our production by 25 percent?’”
The answer he got, he recalled, was that, “although society might require that we need to reduce our carbon emissions and reduce the amount of fossil fuels that are burned, ExxonMobil is committed to winning the competition of producing the largest slice of the remaining fossil fuels that will be allowed to be burned. And I felt that that was an extremely revealing statement of what management thought.”
‘People Feel Trapped’
Chang may have been among the more outspoken employees at Exxon, but others were growing fed up, too. A woman who recently left the company to work at a nonprofit organization, and who asked not to be named because she did not want to hurt her relationship with former colleagues, told Inside Climate News, “I just started thinking I’m part of the problem, I’m not part of the solution.”
She said many employees care about climate change and try to make small differences where they can, but that there’s no forum within the company to press management for change.
Schuller, the former chief of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the oil industry is not built for the type of bottom-up change that has shaken technology companies like Google and Facebook. “There’s this culture that’s more service oriented, like, ‘We provide the energy that people need,’” she said. “There just isn’t a rebellious bone in our collective industry body.”
But, Schuller said, the oil industry is lagging behind other sectors in responding to the stronger views of millennials on climate change, and that executives who fail to listen to the needs of their workforce risk losing talent. “The pure numbers of millennials in relevance internally and externally mean that this is not a trend that can be ignored,” she said.
Mike Coffin, a British geologist who left BP in 2019 to work as an analyst at the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a financial climate think tank, said many younger and mid-career people at BP had found themselves stuck.
Some saw the writing on the wall, with an energy transition forcing companies to reckon with a future of less oil—in January, Reuters reported that BP had slashed the size of its exploration staff. “If you’re a geologist in a company saying ‘We need to reduce our carbon emissions,’ ultimately that’s saying, ‘Get rid of me.’”
But Coffin said people also found themselves caught between a career that prepared them only for oil and gas and their growing concerns about climate change. “People feel trapped,” he said, “because they have on the one hand a well paying job, and the mortgage and the family that they need to support, but on the other hand they have a personal ethical dilemma about working for an oil and gas company.”
A recent global survey of oil and gas workers found that only slightly more than half the respondents would choose to join the industry if they were entering the workforce now. A similar number said they would consider switching to the renewable energy sector.
Some industry veterans defend Exxon’s response to climate change. Charles McConnell, at the Center for Carbon Management in Energy at the University of Houston, said Exxon’s investments into carbon capture and storage, for example, represent a real effort to help decarbonize the energy system. While many European oil companies are expanding into renewable energy, he said, Exxon and other American companies can make an argument that that is not where they hold a competitive advantage. “Exxon isn’t going to be the one building large solar panels,” he said.
But the company is becoming increasingly isolated by its positions on climate change and the energy transition. This year it is facing a new wave of pressure from activist investors, including public pension funds in New York and California, though it remains unclear whether larger shareholders such as Vanguard and BlackRock will force the company’s hand.
Jeff Raun, an environmental and regulatory advisor, left Exxon last year to begin work at the consulting firm EXP in Alaska, where he wants to help oil companies and other developers build renewable energy projects. He said he came to believe that the world is at a critical moment in history with climate change, and “I reoriented my moral compass to be on the right side of it.”
A Climate Evangelist
Chang never heard back about the renewable energy lab job from 2016. Last year, he applied for another position there and one with the U.S. Department of Energy. Hiring for the Energy Department job was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and ultimately went to another candidate.
The renewable energy lab closed the position without filling it in September. Chang said he’s been surprised by how difficult it’s been for someone with a Ph.D. in engineering, and a decade-and-a-half experience at one of the world’s top oil companies, to find employment helping to build clean energy.
“There are a lot of folks who would be happy to move from the oil and gas industry to renewables if there were enough opportunities, if they could make the switch relatively easily,” he said. “It’s very difficult, so something has to change along those lines if you want to have more people speak up and if you want to have more engineers be able to bring their skills to fight climate change.”
Without a job, Chang has devoted himself to local political life, something he said he ignored for too long. He’s joined his neighborhood’s sustainability committee—they’re currently trying to build a solar-powered charging station so residents without garages can charge their electric vehicles—and has arranged tours of the community for state and local lawmakers.
“Of course it’s been frustrating not being able to continue my career, but I am happy that we’re living the way we want to,” he said. “Our neighbors are very close. We actually have a monthly meeting to talk about what we can do to increase sustainability within the community and within our city. We’re also trying to take political action to encourage more building of net-zero fossil fuel free communities like ours.”
Chang’s house, like all those in the Geos Neighborhood, is carefully oriented to maximize exposure to the sun during winter, while shading windows in the summer. With the help of high-quality insulation, state-of-the-art ventilation systems and rooftop solar panels, the buildings generate as much electricity as they consume.
But Chang says the family was seeking a change in culture as much as they were a lower carbon-footprint.
Michelle, who worked a job in the financial sector in Houston that she left years before they decided to move, now works at a health food store.
Before the pandemic hit, Chang would set up a projector and screen in his backyard and invite neighbors for Friday night movies. Staying home has allowed him to help his daughter struggle through remote schooling and the isolation of pandemic life in a new town. Their new community has helped her, too, he said. Once a month, residents gather to move the goats to a new lot, and his daughter made friends with neighbors that way.
“That’s been a buffer against the loneliness of remote schooling,” he said. “This is exactly what I wanted my daughter to grow up with.”