Exxon Made Deep Cuts in Climate Research Budget in the 1980s

The cuts ushered in a five-year hiatus in peer-reviewed publication by its scientists and the era when the company first embraced disinformation.

Pictured here is the Esso Atlantic tanker, where Exxon's first climate-related project was conducted , between 1979 and 1982.

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Internal Exxon Corporation budget documents from the 1980s show that the oil giant sharply curtailed its ambitious program of innovative climate research in those years, chopping well over half from its annual budget for internal investigations into how carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels would affect the planet.

Facing a budget crunch and sensing that any government efforts to clamp down on carbon pollution were a long way off, Exxon terminated two especially innovative experiments. One involved oceanic observations during voyages of the Esso Atlantic, a supertanker. The other proposed to test vintage French wines for tell-tale traces of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels or other sources.

And then, in the late 1980s, Exxon ramped up a decades-long public relations campaign to sow uncertainty about the increasing scientific evidence for urgent action on climate change.

Exxon’s pivoting from the cutting edge of early climate change science to the forefront of climate denial was described in a six-part series published by InsideClimate News beginning in September, based largely on primary sources including Exxon’s own internal documents. Similar findings were reached independently by a team based at the Columbia Journalism School in partnership with the Los Angeles Times.

Exxon spokesman Ken Cohen has questioned ICN’s reporting that the company “curtailed” its research program after a few years of unusually advanced experiments and modeling work in the 1980s.

But several documents uncovered by ICN show that the budget cuts during the 1980s were steep and sudden. The cuts reversed the course that the company followed in the late 1970s, when top company scientists warned Exxon’s management for the first time of the risks of climate change, and launched internal research programs unparalleled among its oil industry peers.

ICN provided an Exxon spokesman copies of the documents being published today and requested any additional information about climate research spending during the 1980s, the period closely examined in ICN’s series, “Exxon: The Road Not Taken.” The spokesman, Alan Jeffers, declined to provide any additional budget numbers.

One of the documents, a June 18, 1982 memo to Harold Weinberg, a top research official, informed him that the year’s budget for research into the looming CO2 problem was to be cut from  $900,000 to $385,000 immediately, and to just $150,000 the following year, an 83 percent cut.

Click to view the full document.

 “We feel this rate of expenditure should be sufficient to fulfill the Corporation’s needs in the CO2 greenhouse field,” said the memo, written by A.M. Natkin, environmental affairs coordinator in the corporate science and technology department.

“These funds are intended to support a resident source of scientific expertise on all phases and aspects of the CO2 Greenhouse effect,” he wrote. “It is important for the corporation to stay abreast of developments in order to assess the impact of new scientific discoveries and to respond to various inquiries.”

He said that $150,000 a year “should be sufficient to do this.”

Exxon’s annual research and development budget at the time was more than $600 million, according to a speech by Exxon Research & Engineering chief Ed David at a 1981 Exxon R&D symposium in San Francisco. The company’s exploration and capital budgets amounted to $11 billion.

The Natkin memo augured the dismantling of the crown jewel of Exxon’s early research on climate change: a seagoing field experiment into the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Once envisioned as an expanding, multiyear effort, it was terminated in 1982, another memo confirmed.

Click to view the full document.

Another innovative proposal to test the carbon dioxide in old vintages of fine French wines also fell by the wayside.

An additional internal document, this one an October 4, 1985 update presented by Brian Flannery, Exxon’s top climate researcher, showed that Exxon’s budget for CO2 research in 1985 and 1986 would be no more than $250,000 each year.

That was to cover professional work by Exxon employees, payments to consultants or contractors for research, travel and miscellaneous expenses, and payments to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, which was a partner in the tanker project and other early Exxon work.

Click to view the full document.

Exxon’s documents show not only that the research was curtailed, but why.

The idea to cut back the research program first surfaced in a January 1981 “scoping study.” That was a type of internal Exxon planning document meant to be the “initial phase in the development of comprehensive plans for high-impact programs,” a cover sheet explained.

“Our recommendation is that comprehensive program plan development not be undertaken for the atmospheric CO2 area,” said the cover sheet.

After all, said the 16-page scoping study, “There is no near term threat of legislation to control CO2. One reason for this is that it has not yet been proven that the increases in atmospheric CO2 constitute a serious problem that requires immediate action.”

The scoping study, a 16-page document, was published by ICN as part of the first installment of its six-part investigative series.

“The increasing level of atmospheric CO2 is causing considerable concern due to potential climate effects,” the document said. Exxon Research & Engineering, it noted, “has been actively conducting research on certain aspects of the issue for approximately two years. This report addresses the question of whether a comprehensive research plan with greater breadth for ER&E than the current plan should be developed.”

The answer to that question was, in short, no. The work “if successful, will likely provide recognition for Exxon for making important technical contributions to this global environmental issue,” according to the document.

However, “an expanded R&D program does not appear to offer significantly increased benefits,” the document went on. “It would require skills which are in limited supply, and would require additional funds on the part of Exxon since Government funding appears unlikely.”

In the mid-1980s the company wrapped up publication of a burst of modeling efforts undertaken during the heyday of its early research–including three important peer-reviewed studies, all described in the ICN series. Those studies by Exxon scientists and consultants, one of them published by the federal government and two by academic journals, confirmed the emerging consensus regarding the planet’s sensitivity to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Then Exxon’s published research hit a five-year hiatus, as shown in Exxon’s own list of more than 50 peer-reviewed climate studies its employees have worked on.

From 1986 to 1990, Exxon went without publishing any peer-reviewed scientific research into the problem, just as it was becoming a hot topic of political debate.

In 1988, 1989 and 1990, Exxon sharply escalated its well-documented efforts to emphasize the scientific uncertainty surrounding climate change, a campaign of misinformation that would last for decades.

Exxon asserts that it has been doing important scientific research continuously since the 1970s. It frequently mentions its financial support for work done by programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Exxon’s support for work at Stanford University, more costly and more geared to developing technologies as opposed to understanding climate change itself, began much later.)

Announced in 1993, Exxon’s first grant of $1 million to the MIT program was expressly designed to produce assessments “based on realistic representations of the uncertainties of climate science.” That phrase occurred both in the press release announcing the grant and, a year later, in the program’s first report, entitled “Uncertainty in Climate Change Policy Analysis.”

In the light of 20 years of hindsight, that 1994 MIT report’s conclusions seem vague and equivocal, providing “no guidance for greenhouse policy.”

It said “neither of the extreme positions, to take urgent action now or do nothing awaiting firm evidence, is a constructive response to the climate threat.”

“Uncertainty is the essence of the issue,” it declared.