Peter Dykstra

Try to think back beyond our current re-enactment of the Great Depression. You don’t have to go very far, maybe only four or five months ago. Oil was $130 a barrel, gasoline four bucks a gallon, and “Drill, Baby Drill” became a campaign mantra.

Exxon/Mobil and its Big Oil colleagues were reporting record profits. Then came a drop in oil consumption due to the high prices. Then an even bigger drop due to the financial bottom falling out of everything. Oil’s now a bit more than a third of its mid-2008 price, and “Drill, Baby Drill” vanished from the national debate quicker than Joe the Plumber.

Rex Tillerson is the man who has run Exxon/Mobil for the past three years, and he’s piloting the company through a changing landscape of increased environmental concern and wildly changing prices. He’s also undertaken, with mild success, a re-engineering of Exxon/Mobil’s image as a company that has finally gotten the proverbial memo on global warming.

Tillerson addressed a gathering at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington yesterday, and showed where Exxon/Mobil has changed on the environment. And where it hasn’t.

Let’s back up for a moment and review the company’s recent environmental history:

The 1989 oil spill from the Exxon Valdez dumped an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Despite a massive cleanup operation, residents say that the impact from the spill is still visible two decades later. A class action suit on behalf of spill victims took nearly that long to resolve: Exxon was originally ordered to pay $5 billion in damages, later reduced by the U.S. Supreme Court to less than half a billion. The surviving plaintiffs (nearly 20% of the original plaintiffs died before the case was resolved) received their checks in 2008.

More recently, Exxon/Mobil -- formed by the 1999 merger of two of the former components of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company -- has taken a beating over its funding of the climate change denial machine. Organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute were regular recipients of Exxon/Mobil’s largesse under the hardline regime of Tillerson’s predecessor, Lee Raymond. When Tillerson took over in 2006, Exxon/Mobil’s direct funding for CEI and some others ceased. In 2008, other denial groups, like the George C. Marshall Institute, were cut off by Exxon/Mobil. And a group of Rockefeller descendants went before last year’s annual shareholders meeting, demanding the company go farther in its makeover and take renewable energy seriously. They didn’t get very far.

For his part, Tillerson made a very un-Exxon-like admission a few years back: “It is clear that something is going on. It is not useful to debate the issue any longer.” And Exxon’s Corporate Citizen Report also acknowledges the major threat of climate change.

On Thursday, he put the support of the world’s largest private oil company behind the idea of a carbon tax. That would have been heresy in the Exxon/Mobil world as recently as five years ago.

Even a critic acknowledges the change -- at least a superficial one: “Once they saw the rest of the corporate world was not fighting legislation on global warming, they changed their tune,” says Rick Piltz of climatesciencewatch.org.

In 2005, Piltz was a Senior Associate in the President’s Climate Change Research Program when he blew the whistle on political tampering with climate science. In his resignation letter, Piltz fingered former oil industry lobbyist Philip Cooney, then Chief of Staff of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, for ordering changes that trumped up a sense of uncertainty about global warming science. Cooney resigned in the subsequent scandal and immediately took a job with Exxon/Mobil.

But has Exxon’s tiger really changed its stripes? Last year, the company rolled out a seven-year plan calling for $30 billion a year in new exploration, almost entirely for oil and gas.  It also has an annual $10 to $12 million dollar renewables research project with Stanford University -- its flagship effort for clean energy. Read that again. Thirty billion, with a “B” for fossil fuels. Ten million, with an “M”, for renewables research. That’s about than half of Rex Tillerson’s reported salary.

I asked him about the disparity between the two. “We are fundamentally an oil and gas company,” he replied. “The world is going to rely on oil and gas for a long time.” Exxon’s alternatives research, he added, would eventually ramp up to 14% of its portfolio. By Tillerson’s numbers, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, while falling domestically, will see a net gain of 1% a year till at least 2030. When another attendee reminded him of the disconnect between acknowledging global warming’s impact and embracing his company’s ponderous contributions to the problem, Tillerson retreated to questioning the certainty of future damage from global warming.

On the recent “Drill Baby Drill” phenomenon, Tillerson was wearing it like it’s still in style. When asked about the Obama administration possibly rolling back recent expansions in offshore oil and gas lease areas, he said America would be “crazy to withhold a beneficial resource from its own people.”

It’s this perception of Exxon/Mobil: From the monopoly days of John D. Rockefeller to the two-decades post Exxon Valdez legal drama, to the costs, at the pump and to the planet, of fossil fuels, Rex Tillerson is the boss of the biggest, baddest actor in one of the biggest, baddest industries. He’s unambiguous about wanting to change that perception. Let’s see if any reality follows. So far, despite the recent drop in oil prices, it looks like Exxon/Mobil’s content with remaining an oil company. They’ll take care of the oil; the rest of us can worry about the climate.

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Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)