Benjamin Franta / The Guardian & Neela Banerjee / Inside Climate News – 2018-08-17 01:27:27
On Its 100th Birthday in 1959, Edward Teller
Warned the Oil Industry about Global Warming
Benjamin Franta / The Guardian
LONDON (January 1, 2018) — It was a typical November day in New York City. The year: 1959. Robert Dunlop, 50 years old and photographed later as clean-shaven, hair carefully parted, his earnest face donning horn-rimmed glasses, passed under the Ionian columns of Columbia University’s iconic Low Library. He was a guest of honor for a grand occasion: the centennial of the American oil industry.
Over 300 government officials, economists, historians, scientists, and industry executives were present for the Energy and Man symposium — organized by the American Petroleum Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Business — and Dunlop was to address the entire congregation on the “prime mover” of the last century — energy — and its major source: oil.
As President of the Sun Oil Company, he knew the business well, and as al director of the American Petroleum Institute — the industry’s largest and oldest trade association in the land of Uncle Sam — he was responsible for representing the interests of all those many oilmen gathered around him.
Four others joined Dunlop at the podium that day, one of whom had made the journey from California — and Hungary before that. The nuclear weapons physicist Edward Teller had, by 1959, become ostracized by the scientific community for betraying his colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer, but he retained the embrace of industry and government. Teller’s task that November fourth was to address the crowd on “energy patterns of the future,” and his words carried an unexpected warning:
Ladies and gentlemen, I am to talk to you about energy in the future. I will start by telling you why I believe that the energy resources of the past must be supplemented. First of all, these energy resources will run short as we use more and more of the fossil fuels. [. . ..] But I would [. . .] like to mention another reason why we probably have to look for additional fuel supplies. And this, strangely, is the question of contaminating the atmosphere. [. . ..]
Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. [. . ..] The carbon dioxide is invisible, it is transparent, you can’t smell it, it is not dangerous to health, so why should one worry about it?
Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect [. . . .] It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York.
All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.
How, precisely, Mr. Dunlop and the rest of the audience reacted is unknown, but it’s hard to imagine this being welcome news. After his talk, Teller was asked to “summarize briefly the danger from increased carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere in this century.” The physicist, as if considering a numerical estimation problem, responded:
At present the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 2 per cent over normal. By 1970, it will be perhaps 4 per cent, by 1980, 8 per cent, by 1990, 16 per cent [about 360 parts per million, by Teller’s accounting], if we keep on with our exponential rise in the use of purely conventional fuels. By that time, there will be a serious additional impediment for the radiation leaving the earth. Our planet will get a little warmer. It is hard to say whether it will be 2 degrees Fahrenheit or only one or 5.
But when the temperature does rise by a few degrees over the whole globe, there is a possibility that the icecaps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise. Well, I don’t know whether they will cover the Empire State Building or not, but anyone can calculate it by looking at the map and noting that the icecaps over Greenland and over Antarctica are perhaps five thousand feet thick.
And so, at its hundredth birthday party, American oil was warned of its civilization-destroying potential.
Talk about a buzzkill.
How did the petroleum industry respond? Eight years later, on a cold, clear day in March, Robert Dunlop walked the halls of the US Congress. The 1967 oil embargo was weeks away, and the Senate was investigating the potential of electric vehicles. Dunlop, testifying now as the Chairman of the Board of the American Petroleum Institute, posed the question, “tomorrow’s car: electric or gasoline powered?” His preferred answer was the latter:
We in the petroleum industry are convinced that by the time a practical electric car can be mass-produced and marketed, it will not enjoy any meaningful advantage from an air pollution standpoint. Emissions from internal-combustion engines will have long since been controlled.
Dunlop went on to describe progress in controlling carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and hydrocarbon emissions from automobiles. Absent from his list? The pollutant he had been warned of years before: carbon dioxide.
We might surmise that the odorless gas simply passed under Robert Dunlop’s nose unnoticed. But less than a year later, the American Petroleum Institute quietly received a report on air pollution it had commissioned from the Stanford Research Institute, and its warning on carbon dioxide was direct:
Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and these could bring about climatic changes. [. . .] there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe. [. . .] pollutants which we generally ignore because they have little local effect, CO2 and submicron particles, may be the cause of serious world-wide environmental changes.
Thus, by 1968, American oil held in its hands yet another notice of its products’ world-altering side effects, one affirming that global warming was not just cause for research and concern, but a reality needing corrective action: “Past and present studies of CO2 are detailed,” the Stanford Research Institute advised. “What is lacking, however, is [. . .] work toward systems in which CO2 emissions would be brought under control.”
This early history illuminates the American petroleum industry’s long-running awareness of the planetary warming caused by its products. Teller’s warning, revealed in documentation I found while searching archives, is another brick in a growing wall of evidence.
In the closing days of those optimistic 1950s, Robert Dunlop may have been one of the first oilmen to be warned of the tragedy now looming before us. By the time he departed this world in 1995, the American Petroleum Institute he once led was denying the climate science it had been informed of decades before, attacking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and fighting climate policies wherever they arose.
This is a history of choices made, paths not taken, and the fall from grace of one of the greatest enterprises — oil, the “prime mover” — ever to tread the earth. Whether it’s also a history of redemption, however partial, remains to be seen.
American oil’s awareness of global warming — and its conspiracy of silence, deceit, and obstruction — goes further than any one company. It extends beyond (though includes) ExxonMobil. The industry is implicated to its core by the history of its largest representative, the American Petroleum Institute.
It is now too late to stop a great deal of change to our planet’s climate and its global payload of disease, destruction, and death. But we can fight to halt climate change as quickly as possible, and we can uncover the history of how we got here. There are lessons to be learned, and there is justice to be served.
Benjamin Franta (@BenFranta) is a PhD student in history of science at Stanford University who studies the history of climate change science and politics. He has a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University and is a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers
Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too
Members of an American Petroleum Institute
task force on CO2 included scientists from nearly
every major oil company, including Exxon, Texaco and Shell
Neela Banerjee / Inside Climate News
(December 22, 2015) — The American Petroleum Institute together with the nation’s largest oil companies ran a task force to monitor and share climate research between 1979 and 1983, indicating that the oil industry, not just Exxon alone, was aware of its possible impact on the world’s climate far earlier than previously known.
The group’s members included senior scientists and engineers from nearly every major US and multinational oil and gas company, including Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio as well as Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil, the predecessors to Chevron, according to internal documents obtained by InsideClimate News and interviews with the task force’s former director.
An InsideClimate News investigative series has shown that Exxon launched its own cutting-edge CO2 sampling program in 1978 in order to understand a phenomenon it suspected could harm its business.
About a decade later, Exxon spearheaded campaigns to cast doubt on climate science and stall regulation of greenhouse gases. The previously unpublished papers about the climate task force indicate that API, the industry’s most powerful lobbying group, followed a similar arc to Exxon’s in confronting the threat of climate change.
Just as Exxon began tracking climate science in the late 1970s, when only small groups of scientists in academia and the government were engaged in the research, other oil companies did the same, the documents show. Like Exxon, the companies also expressed a willingness to understand the links between their product, greater CO2 concentrations and the climate, the papers reveal. Some corporations ran their own research units as well, although they were smaller and less ambitious than Exxon’s and focused on climate modeling, said James J. Nelson, the former director of the task force.
“It was a fact-finding task force,” Nelson said in an interview. “We wanted to look at emerging science, the implications of it and where improvements could be made, if possible, to reduce emissions.”
The group was initially called the CO2 and Climate Task Force, but changed its name to the Climate and Energy Task Force in 1980, Nelson said.
A background paper on CO2 informed API members in 1979 that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was rising steadily, and it predicted when the first clear effects of climate change might be felt, according to a memo by an Exxon task force representative.
In addition, API task force members appeared open to the idea that the oil industry might have to shoulder some responsibility for reducing CO2emissions by changing refining processes and developing fuels that emitted less carbon dioxide.
Bruce S. Bailey of Texaco offered “for consideration” the idea that “an overall goal of the Task Force should be to help develop ground rules for energy release of fuels and the cleanup of fuels as they relate to CO2creation,” according to the minutes of a meeting on Feb. 29, 1980.
The minutes also show that the task force discussed a “potential area” for research and development that called for it to “‘Investigate the Market Penetration Requirements of Introducing a New Energy Source into World Wide Use.’ This would include the technical implications of energy source changeover, research timing and requirements.”
Yet by the 1990s, it was clear that API had opted for a markedly different approach to the threat of climate change. It joined Exxon, other fossil fuel companies and major manufacturers in the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group whose objective was to derail international efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions.
In 1998, a year after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by countries to cut fossil fuel emissions, API crafted a campaign to convince the American public and lawmakers that climate science was too tenuous for the United States to ratify the treaty.
“Unless ‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts,” according to the draft Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan circulated by API.
API and GCC were victorious when George W. Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto agreement. A June 2001 briefing memorandum records a top State Department official thanking the GCC because Bush “rejected the Kyoto Protocol in part, based on input from you.”
API did not respond to several requests for comment on this story.
The Climate and Energy Task Force continued until at least 1983, when Nelson left API after a four-year stint. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority was growing, and oil companies believed the agency was silencing them, Nelson said. It became harder for corporations to get scientific papers published or to draw favorable media attention, the industry felt. In the end, company leaders feared this would lead to overregulation.
As a result, API decided that it wasn’t enough to have scientists meeting in a task force about climate change or other pollution issues. It needed lobbyists to influence politicians on environmental issues, Nelson said.
“They took the environmental unit and put it into the political department, which was primarily lobbyists,” Nelson said of API. “They weren’t focused on doing research or on improving the oil industry’s impact on pollution. They were less interested in pushing the envelope of science and more interested in how to make it more advantageous politically or economically for the oil industry. That’s not meant as a criticism. It’s just a fact of life.”
Nelson said he departed API because he was not a lobbyist, but said he did not object to API’s lobbying. Nelson does not accept that human activity is the main driver of climate change; he believes that natural cycles and phenomena such as volcanoes and deforestation have contributed significantly to a warming planet. The API was not about “trying to distort the truth but about getting the information out in a factual manner. It wasn’t about propaganda,” he said.
Nelson joined API in 1979 after a career as an Air Force pilot and then as the director of the first air quality monitoring system in Fairfax County, Va. At the time, API had an environment division that helped member companies organize and staff committees on potential pollution issues, including waste management and water quality. Nelson was hired to run the air quality committee, which focused largely on pollution such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants that had more immediate, local consequences.
CO2 was not among the most pressing issues that API members faced, Nelson said. Still, by the time he arrived, companies were already putting together the task force to monitor the emerging science on higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations and their possible impact on the climate.
They had seen how pollution had hammered other industries, such as acid rain’s effect on power generation or asbestos on construction, Nelson said. The oil industry did not want to be blindsided by the CO2 problem, which the science of the late 1970s had already linked to fossil fuel combustion.
As the group came together, Raymond J. Campion, a scientist at Exxon Research and Engineering and a member of the task force, recommended in memos to colleagues that “CO2 not receive a high priority” from API. One reason, Campion wrote, was because “the industry’s credibility on such issues is not high at the present time, and should an API study indicate no serious CO2 problems, the results would be greeted with skepticism.”
Some of the recipients of those memos were top people on the lobbying and planning side of Exxon USA, the company’s domestic affiliate. On July 9, 1979, Campion wrote a memo to W.W. Madden, the manager of strategic planning at Exxon USA. Campion noted “Bill Slick’s need for information on atmospheric CO2 buildup as a potential emerging issue for API to consider.” Slick was an Exxon USA vice president and a well-known lobbyist in Washington.
Another reason to pursue a limited agenda, Campion wrote, was because the Energy Department and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) were expected to issue a report “momentarily” based on an April 1979 climate symposium that “concluded no catastrophic hazards would be associated with the CO2 buildup over the next 100 years and that society can cope readily with whatever problems ensue.”
(Eventually published in October 1980, the AAAS report offered more sobering forecasts than Campion had expected, describing risks to nearly every facet of life on Earth and concluding catastrophes could be avoided only if timely steps were taken to address climate change.)
A memo from Campion to colleague J.T. Burgess dated Sept. 6, 1979 showed that the task force moved quickly to draft a background paper about CO2. Campion wrote that he was asked to critique it for Slick to use in API discussions.
Campion suggested corrections to the background paper’s quantification of the rate of CO2 build-up, as well as an estimate in the paper that the “warming of the atmosphere . . . may be noticeable within the next twenty years.”
He estimated that the effects would be felt after 2000, after a cyclical cooling period had passed. Because a cyclical warming trend was then expected post 2000, it would intensify climate change, “worsening the effect,” he wrote. It is not known if the corrections were made to the paper.
Campion declined to be interviewed regarding his participation on the task force. Other Exxon representatives included Robert J. Fritz, who could not be located, and Henry Shaw, the company’s lead climate researcher in the late 1970s, who is deceased. Exxon did not answer a request for comment.
The company representatives were scientists and engineers, and well-versed on air quality issues, Nelson recalled. Their views on carbon dioxide’s possible impact on the climate varied, with many skeptical that man-made emissions could substantially affect the atmosphere. But they approached their participation on the task force dispassionately, he said.
“The individuals I had on the task force were very, very technically and ethically moral,” Nelson said. “They felt that their job for their company was to look at an issue and if there was a problem, or if the petroleum industry was part of it or could contribute to fixing the problem, they wanted to do that.”
Nelson organized the monthly meetings, took minutes and disseminated information companies wanted to share. Documents show representatives of about a half-dozen companies at various meetings. The meeting sites rotated among the members’ cities, including oil hubs such as Houston and Tulsa; Washington, where API is located; and New York, where Exxon was headquartered at the time.
As Campion had recommended, API did not conduct its own research. But some of its members did, and they were generous about sharing their work and insights, Nelson said. “There were lots of discussions about climate models: whose were right and whose were wrong,” he said.
Chevron acquired Texaco in 2000. Nelson said that Texaco’s Bailey ran a small climate modeling team at the research facility in Beacon, N.Y. Bailey could not be located for comment. Chevron declined to comment on early CO2 research activities.
At Shaw’s urging, the task force invited Professor John A. Laurmann of Stanford University to brief members about climate science at the February 1980 meeting in New York. Shaw and Laurmann had participated in the same panel at the AAAS climate conference in April 1979.
Like many scientists at the time, Laurmann openly discussed the uncertainties in the evolving climate research, such as the limited long-term sampling data and the difficulty of determining regional effects of climate change, according to a copy of his presentation attached to the meeting minutes.
Still, Laurmann told his audience several times that the evidence showed that the increase in atmospheric CO2 is likely “caused by anthropogenic release of CO2, mainly from fossil fuel burning.”
In his conclusions section, Laurmann estimated that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would double in 2038, which he said would likely lead to a 2.5 degrees Celsius rise in global average temperatures with “major economic consequences.” He then told the task force that models showed a 5 degrees Celsius rise by 2067, with “globally catastrophic effects.”
The documents also show that the Energy Department contacted the task force in November 1979 to get its opinion on a study to be published in the journal Science about CO2 emissions from the development of oil shale. The government and oil industry had embarked on a mission to develop synthetic petroleum from sources such as oil shale and coal because of falling conventional oil production in the US and political instability in the Middle East.
The Science study, by two geologists from the US Geological Survey, estimated that synthetic crude from oil shale would generate three to five times more CO2 than conventional oil, double previous estimates, the Energy Department said.
The task force spent several months analyzing and refining its statement on the USGS paper, documents show. “Our estimates are less than theirs,” Nelson said, “and if their numbers become gospel and no one challenges them, it could cause concern.”
Because it was heavily involved in synfuels, Exxon weighed in first in December 1979. Shaw said that the paper was well-written. But he agreed with the Energy Department that the CO2 estimates were too high, and that “the paper may alarm the public unjustifiably,” he wrote in a letter to API.
Shaw’s own calculations about CO2 from synfuels served as the basis of the eventual position paper the task force sent to the Energy Department in the spring of 1980 after multiple drafts. In one draft, the task force stated in March 1980 that the estimates in the Science article were accurate in light of the assumptions it used. “However, several of these assumptions stem from worst-case scenarios that are highly improbable and unrealistic,” the task force concluded.
It is unclear what the Energy Department did with the task force’s assessment of the paper. Roger C. Dahlman, the Energy Department staff member who sent the article to the task force, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After he left API in 1983, Nelson said he followed sporadically the organization’s response to climate change. He said he felt the API’s lobbying stemmed from a desire to have its concerns heard.
“That was the driving force, a worry about excessive regulation, my impression from having watched it along the way,” he said.
Charles DiBona served as president of API from 1979 to 1997, when the organization shifted its approach on climate change from following the science to intense lobbying to discredit it. DiBona said in a phone interview that he did not remember the climate task force.
Like Nelson, he does not accept the prevailing scientific consensus that climate change is being driven by fossil fuel combustion. “I think there is some question about the broader scientific community. There’s not much evidence that there is real consensus,” DiBona said.
In the 1990s, API argued that the science was too weak to warrant action, even as research grew more certain about the link between fossil fuel use, greater CO2 concentrations and rising global temperatures. Exxon chief executive Lee Raymond was API chairman from 1996 to 1997, when he focused on the uncertainty. The GCC emphasized the issue, too, in its public statements.
“Many people, politicians and the public alike, believe that global warming is a rock-solid certainty,” Raymond said in a 1997 speech in Beijing. “But it’s not.”
API organized industry resistance to the possibility of the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases in 1999. When the Bush administration took office, former API lobbyist Philip A. Cooney became chief of staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, the White House office that drove climate policy. Government scientists accused Cooney of rewriting federal research reports to sow doubt about man-made climate change. Cooney resigned in 2005 and went to work for ExxonMobil.
API’s current position is that “fossil fuel development and environmental progress are not mutually exclusive,” according to Jack Gerard, the group’s president. But API still rejects any federal mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Gerard decried President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from the country’s power plants, the cornerstone of the administration’s climate agenda, as destructive “government interference” in free markets.
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