Years After ‘ExxonSecrets,’ Activist Applauds New Spotlight on Old Nemesis

Q&A with Kert Davies, who first began revealing Exxon's ties to climate denial groups in 2004.

Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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Long before the recent revelations that Exxon accepted global warming and strove to produce cutting-edge climate research, environmental activist Kert Davies had already unraveled an important chapter of the oil giant’s history: its bankrolling of a network of climate denial groups that helped stall for decades federal efforts to cut greenhouse gases from fossil fuels.

Davies founded the research unit of Greenpeace USA in 2002 and two years later, it published the “ExxonSecrets” investigation. It was the first documentation of the millions of dollars Exxon spent on think tanks and advocacy organizations that put forward experts and reports to give climate denial the gloss of legitimacy.

Over the last 12 years, Davies, who now heads the watchdog group Climate Investigations Center, has continued to add detail and nuance to the picture of Exxon’s climate denial campaign.

Kert Davies
Kert Davies. Credit: Climate Investigations Center

According to ExxonSecrets’ most current data, the company donated nearly $31 million from 1998 to 2014 to pro-business, right-wing think tanks that “spread climate denial.” The 69 recipients included conservative powerhouses such as the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heritage Foundation.

The project made Davies arguably the world’s foremost expert on Exxon’s climate change legacy. 

The notoriety also made Greenpeace the target of harassment. “We learned many years after the fact that Greenpeace was likely infiltrated by spies hired by Exxon, because of the campaign we were running,” Davies said “We learned this through a whistleblower in a complex plot that was revealed by Mother Jones in 2008. I had a reporter call me once and start the conversation “have you ever had interns that might not have been interns?”

Davies arrived at Greenpeace in 2000 when it merged with the group he was working for, Ozone Action. He said he focused on Exxon because it “was the biggest climate bully on the block.” The company sent scientists to meetings of of international bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to argue against findings that pointed to fossil fuel emissions as the main driver of climate change. Chief executive Lee Raymond gave speeches casting doubt on climate science even has the research was growing more sophisticated and accurate.  Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute led the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of heavy industry and fossil fuel companies that worked to halt U.S. adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty to reduce climate-changing emissions.

Using publicly available documents, ExxonSecrets illustrated “with network maps the think tanks and organizations Exxon funded and calls out journalists for giving them a free ride without the parenthetical ‘funded by Exxon’ after quoting the so-called ‘independent’ climate experts,” Davies said in an email. InsideClimate News’ series about Exxon’s early climate research from the late 1970s, based on thousands of pages of internal documents, confirmed suspicions that critics long held about the company, said Davies.

But the breadth and ambition of Exxon’s early climate research surprised him nonetheless. “You know, quite frankly, my first reaction to the older documents ICN found was ‘wow, I wish I had found these!’ a little jealous and also just plain overjoyed,” Davies wrote in an email. “It was like Christmas in September.”

Davies spoke to InsideClimate News about the ICN investigation, how it has affected his perspective on his decades-long research into Exxon and new questions the articles have spawned about the oil industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ICN: How surprised were you by the stories and the new documents?

KD: I was incredibly surprised. I’ve spent most of my adult life focused on this company. I assumed there was a level of knowledge about climate science at Exxon. I had no idea that they had an internal research program, that they considered CO2 emissions when they planned the development of Natuna (gas field in Indonesia). That was mindblowing. Nobody knew this.

I have had radar up for all things Exxon and climate change and have built a pretty good larder of documents and intel.  Of course, I knew about Brian Flannery and Haroon Kheshgi [Exxon climate scientists] and their interventions within the IPCC process, but no one knew about the much deeper science program at Exxon or the extent of the internal briefings and conversation on various pathways the company could take.

This topiccorporations and climate denialwas a very small almost boutique conversation 10 or 15 years ago. Now it’s front page news and presidential candidates are talking about it. It’s kind of a trip and very humbling. I know now that it was worth it to file all those FOIAs, and gather documents and keep old files. Hoarding pays off! 

ICN: How did these revelations fit with your work at Greenpeace on Exxon?

KD: They made what we learned that much more compelling. The most important question for me really is: what did they do with knowledge they’d gained? The more important thing is how they corrupted the political process [through the groups Exxon funded].

ICN: You have said the new information ICN unearthed has prompted you to look at your files again through a new lens. Anything click into place?  

KD: The investigations revealed that we were more right than we knew when accusing Exxon of denial and deception in the late 1990s and through the 2000s. During that time period we put a lot of research and evidence in play showing that Exxon funded organizations, and [these] people engaged in climate denial. Now we have a completely different backdrop to those policy and science fights that got going in the late 90s, especially after Kyoto. 

When we did the Greenpeace report Denial and Deception in 2002 [which documented ExxonMobil’s efforts to foster doubt among the public about climate change], there was a basic assumption that Exxon must have known better on the science and was running these counter campaigns to derail policy action.  In other words, they must have read the IPCC reports like the rest of us and were smart enough to see the truth.  But we had no idea of the depth of their internal scientific knowledge.

There has been a “didn’t we know that already?” reaction to the ICN and Columbia University investigations [Columbia’s work was published in the Los Angeles Times after ICN’s series began] that made me realize that we are victims of our own success. The Exxon climate denial campaign has become a given, a fact, so much so that people assume that Exxon must have known better.  

Another thing the ICN stories had me reflecting on was Lee Raymond’s intransigence and bombast, something I personally witnessed and cataloged in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  I always considered him a true science denier, head in the sand, stubborn to the end, believing what he said and maybe just misled or selectively grabbing misinformation to validate his own denial.  To know now that he must have been briefed by Exxon scientists, his own staff, means he chose the path of willful ignorance and makes him even more the villain.  I can’t wait to see him deposed. 

ICN: What are some of the major questions the new info has not answered?

KD: We’re mainly interested in what they all knew, when they knew it.

How much did Exxon share what they were learning and analyzing in the 1970s and early 80s with others in the oil industry?  You answered that with the API article somewhat. [Editor’s note: A Dec. 22 article by ICN detailed an American Petroleum Institute task force that studied CO2 emissions in the 1970s.]  

We really need the nuts and bolts of the strategy to fund all the front groups after 1997: Who ran it and who authorized it?

ICN: What would you like to see happen next?

KD: I’d like to see continued investigations revealing more documents to add to this history with expansion to other companies and other industries. 

ICN: How about Exxon itself?

KD: I don’t know what we want Exxon to do. They need to come clean, own their legacy and work with the rest of the world to try to solve the climate crisis, and stop acting like a private empire, with interests apart from the rest of humanity.