‘Stand back, I’m going to try science’: Inside the brain of ExxonMobil’s CEO
That talk by ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at the Council on Foreign Relations that Gristmill linked to earlier today is a stunning demonstration of how to sow confusion and delay. It’s worth deeper analysis. So let’s dig in!
It’s very long, so we’ll summarize some sections and zero in on a couple of key passages. You can read the whole thing here.
Paragraphs 1-6, in short: Energy prices sure go up and down a lot! But we keep finding more fossil fuels when we need to.
Next 3 paragraphs: Boy, there was a lot more natural gas in the shale here in North America than we expected.
Next 6 paragraphs: Let’s all say “energy security” rather than “energy independence,” OK? Exxon is a multinational, and I want everyone to be friends and not worry about where their oil comes from as long as it keeps coming.
Here’s where Tillerson starts to gets interesting. Let’s quote his original and then translate:
Ours is an industry that is built on technology, it’s built on science, it’s built on engineering, and because we have a society that by and large is illiterate in these areas, science, math and engineering, what we do is a mystery to them and they find it scary. And because of that, it creates easy opportunities for opponents of development, activist organizations, to manufacture fear.
Translation: You thought those people out there sounding an alarm about climate change were scientists? Forget it. We here at Exxon, we’re the scientists. And all those people with fancy degrees and titles who have been desperately trying to teach the U.S. public about global warming? They’re illiterates! We’re the clean guys in white coats; they’re the dirty “manufacturers” of fear.
And so as these technologies emerge, we know the immediate response from certain parts of interested parties out there is going to be to manufacture fear because that’s how you slow this down. And nowhere is it more effective than in the United States. And so that’s — the pace at which these things occur oftentimes is our ability to deal with the manufactured fear, our ability as an industry, working with well-intended regulators and policymakers to address the fears.
Translation: I am a dispassionate man of reason. Forget that I run one of the richest corporations in the world. I am not an “interested party.” The interested parties are all those illiterate, fear-mongering activists who are getting filthy rich off their fabulously wealthy nonprofit activities.
It requires a lot of education, requires taking an illiterate public — illiterate in the sciences, engineering and mathematics — and trying to help them understand why we can manage these risks. And that’s a very intensive, almost one-on-one process — town by town, city council by city council, state by state. So it takes a while. And we’re not particularly aided in our efforts by the broad-based media, because it’s a lot sexier to write the fear stories than it is to write the here’s-how-you-manage-it story.
Translation: Do not think that we buy advertisements and pay lobbyists in order to influence public policy in our favor. At Exxon, we re having one-on-one conversations with our community. Sadly, journalists sometimes help out those fearmongering ignoramuses by repeating their lies. So we have to spend lots of money setting the record straight.
Now, that’s just a fact, it’s not a complaint. But it’s part of why do things take so long. Well, that’s one of the reasons it takes us a long time to get the policy solutions, because it all becomes then a political process instead of a scientific process.
Translation: If only we could leave energy policy safely in the hands of scientists. Wait, maybe that’s not the best idea.
There are important questions about the things that people worry about, and we have an obligation to address them, and we devote a tremendous amount of effort in addressing those. But I think if you look at the technologies that are front and center today around the shale resources — hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, the integration of those technologies, how we drill these wells, how we protect fresh water zone, how we protect emissions — we have all of that engineered. And as long as we as an industry follow good engineering practices and standards, these risks are entirely manageable. And the consequences of a misstep by any member of our industry — and I’m speaking again about the shale revolution — the consequences of a misstep in a well, while large to the immediate people that live around that well, in the great scheme of things are pretty small, and even to the immediate people around the well, they could be mitigated.
Translation: Accidents don’t happen if you do things right, and at Exxon, we always do things right. And even if there is an accident with fracking, which sometimes is done by people who don’t work for Exxon who might not do everything right, it will only wreck the lives of a limited number of people in a small number of communities. So who cares?
These are not life-threatening, they’re not long-lasting, and they’re not new. They are the same risks that our industry has been managing for more than 100 years in the conventional development of oil and natural gas. There’s nothing new in what we’re doing, and we’ve been hydraulically refracturing (sic) wells in large numbers since the 1960s; first developed in 1940. So this is an old technology just being applied, integrated with some new technologies. So the risks are very manageable.
Translation: If you look at the history of our industry, why would anyone worry? It’s not as if there have ever been any accidents, right?
The fears are real. We don’t discount that people’s fears are their fears. We have to address that. We want to address it with sound science, we want to address it with real data, and somehow we have to overcome the manufactured fear which gets most of the headlines.
Translation: The fears aren’t real! But unfortunately the U.S. still has elections, and the government can still make trouble for us. So we have to pretend to take public fears seriously. After all, if we lose a few towns here and there, you and I here at this elite conference understand that that’s an acceptable risk — but the illiterate masses out there might get really upset.
There is much, much more in this speech, but that’s enough for now. OK, almost enough. Here’s one last bit from the Q&A at the end.
QUESTIONER: Hi, I’m David Fenton. Mr. Tillerson, I want to talk about science and risk, and I agree with you that’s the way we must proceed. So, as you know, it’s a basic fact of physics that CO2 traps heat, and too much CO2 will mean it will get too hot, and we will face enormous risks as a result of this not only to our way of life, but to the world economy. It will be devastating: The seas will rise, the coastlines will be unstable for generations, the price of food will go crazy. This is what we face, and we all know it.
Now — so my question for you is since we all know this knowledge, we’re a little in denial of it. You know, if we burn all these reserves you’ve talked about, you can kiss future generations good-bye. And maybe we’ll find a solution to take it out of the air. But, as you know, we don’t have one. So what are you going to do about this? We need your help to do something about this.
TILLERSON: Well, let me — let me say that we have studied that issue and continue to study it as well. We are and have been long-time participants in the IPCC panels. We author many of the IPCC subcommittee papers, and we peer-review most of them. So we are very current on the science, our understanding of the science, and importantly — and this is where I’m going to take exception to something you said — the competency of the models to predict the future. We’ve been working with a very good team at MIT now for more than 20 years on this area of modeling the climate, which, since obviously it’s an area of great interest to you, you know and have to know the competencies of the models are not particularly good.
Now you can plug in assumptions on many elements of the climate system that we cannot model — and you know what they all are. We cannot model aerosols; we cannot model clouds, which are big, big factors in how the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere affect temperatures at surface level. The models we need — and we are putting a lot of money supporting people and continuing to work on these models, try and become more competent with the models. But our ability to predict, with any accuracy, what the future’s going to be is really pretty limited.
So our approach is we do look at the range of the outcomes and try and understand the consequences of that, and clearly there’s going to be an impact. So I’m not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It’ll have a warming impact. The — how large it is is what is very hard for anyone to predict. And depending on how large it is, then projects how dire the consequences are.
As we have looked at the most recent studies coming — and the IPCC reports, which we — I’ve seen the drafts; I can’t say too much because they’re not out yet. But when you predict things like sea level rise, you get numbers all over the map. If you take a — what I would call a reasonable scientific approach to that, we believe those consequences are manageable. They do require us to begin to exert — or spend more policy effort on adaptation. What do you want to do if we think the future has sea level rising four inches, six inches? Where are the impacted areas, and what do you want to do to adapt to that?
And as human beings as a — as a — as a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don’t — the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.
I do believe we have to — we have to be efficient and we have to manage it, but we also need to look at the other side of the engineering solution, which is how are we going to adapt to it. And there are solutions. It’s not a problem that we can’t solve.
Translation: Yes, global warming is real. Carbon emissions really do boost temperatures. But nobody knows by how much — that’s impossible to predict. So what the hell? Let’s just take that risk of apocalypse. The consequences will be manageable — for us here at ExxonMobil. As for the human race? It will just have to adapt! And you can count on us engineers to help you out with that. After all, by that time we’re going to need a new line of business.