Exxon Mobil Warming Up To Global Climate Issue

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

When it comes to the issue of climate change, Exxon Mobil says it has been misunderstood.

"Many people want to stick us in a bucket that says we want to deny this," said the company's vice president for public affairs, Kenneth P. Cohen, during a conference call this week. "That is flat wrong."

Cohen said that the world's largest publicly traded oil company, long the leading corporate symbol of skepticism about global warming, has never denied the existence of climate change. He added that "the global ecosystem is showing signs of warming, particularly in polar areas" and "the appropriate debate isn't on whether the climate is changing but rather should be on what we should be doing about it."

The modest statement, coupled with the disclosure last year that the company is no longer funding a Washington think tank critical of climate change actions, is reshaping the oil giant's role in congressional efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions.

While Cohen says that Exxon Mobil hasn't changed its position, many people in the environmental and scientific communities say the company's stance marks at least an evolution, if not an about-face.

"I think that their position on the science of global warming has definitely changed," said Dan Lashof, deputy director of climate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They found that it was untenable to be in a position of casting doubt on whether global warming is happening and whether pollution is responsible for that."

"There's a very long paper trail," said Andrew Logan, director of the oil program at Ceres, a Boston-based group trying to marshal shareholders to press corporations on environmental issues. Now, Logan said, "If they're shifting their rhetoric away from debating the existence of the problem and toward solutions, that is important and I think a step forward."

In an earlier interview, Cohen said that with Congress's sights set on greenhouse gases, the oil giant wants "to be part of those discussions." He said that Exxon Mobil had met with policymakers to "lay out first principles" -- using market forces, not picking winners and weighing warming risks against the costs of action -- without endorsing any particular measure. He said an endorsement from Exxon Mobil would probably be death to any legislative proposal.

Asked whether the company would favor a cap-and-trade method of limiting greenhouse gases, Cohen said, "The devil's in the details. That's neither a yes nor a no. It's a definite maybe."

Exxon Mobil has a lot at stake. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the carbon dioxide emitted by the end users of all of Exxon Mobil's products is greater than the emissions of all but five countries.

The company has been the poster child of denial among those convinced of global warming. It opposed the Kyoto climate change treaty. In 2001, it pressed the Bush administration to remove an outspoken scientist from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2005, a White House official accused of altering scientific reports to cast more doubt on global warming went to work for the company.

The company has also been accused of financing policy groups as surrogates for sowing doubts about the causes of global warming. The Competitive Enterprise Institute received about $2 million over seven years. Cohen said that Exxon's foundation, which he heads, decided in 2005 to cut funding, though that came to light only last fall.

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