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Exxon lobbyist questions urgency of climate’s catastrophic risks

Speaking on panel, ExxonMobil lobbyist highlights carbon capture’s potential and says of global warming: ‘Is it catastrophic inevitable risk? Not in my mind.’

Erik Oswald, a vice president and registered lobbyist for Exxon, emphasized the profit opportunity in addressing global warming during a panel in Santa Fe, N.M. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Just last month, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods assured lawmakers his company neither disputed the scientific consensus on climate change nor lobbied against efforts to cut carbon pollution. But a lobbyist for the oil giant struck a different tone less than two weeks later, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post, suggesting global warming might not be so dire.

Erik Oswald, a vice president and registered lobbyist for Exxon, during a Nov. 9 panel hosted by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission in Santa Fe, N.M., highlighted his firm’s financial interest in curbing carbon emissions rather than the dangers posed by climate change.

“Is it catastrophic inevitable risk? Not in my mind. But there is risk,” he said, according to a recording that the watchdog group Documented shared with The Post.

Oswald emphasized the push to advance technology pulling carbon dioxide out the air as a profit opportunity, rather than a way to mitigate global warming.

“The way we think about this is not as the Crusaders who are the climate fix,” he said. “We’re looking at markets.”

The contrasting messaging shows the tortured path that behemoth fossil fuel companies are navigating as climate activism targets their core businesses.

Exxon spokesman Casey Norton said in an email, “The statements you provided lack appropriate context and are not representative of the company’s positions on important issues, including climate change and carbon capture.”

“ExxonMobil has long acknowledged that climate change is real and poses serious risks,” Norton added. “In addition to our substantial investments in next generation technologies, ExxonMobil also advocates for responsible climate-related policies.”

Oswald declined to comment.

The commission Oswald addressed is a compact of dozens of states that “assists member states in establishing effective regulatory practices to conserve and efficiently recover oil and natural gas resources,” according to its website.

While the precise impacts of global warming will be determined by the amount of fossil fuels burned in the coming years, scientists warn that ongoing climate disasters are sure to intensify given the greenhouse gases already unleashed by industrialization. A report released in August by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of catastrophic consequences — intensifying droughts, fires, floods and storms — unless the world dramatically cuts greenhouse gases.

Exxon’s CEO emphasized the company’s support for climate science when he testified under oath before the House Oversight and Reform Committee last month.

“Its public statements about climate change are, and have been, truthful, fact-based, transparent, and consistent with the views of the broader, mainstream scientific community at the time,” Woods said in prepared remarks. He added during questioning by lawmakers that the company does “not ask people to lobby anything different than our publicly supported position.”

The fight for the soul, and the future, of ExxonMobil

Fossil fuel companies and their allies in Congress, including Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), have insisted on providing generous subsidies for carbon capture from power plants as part of any plan to eliminate carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector by 2035. That comes on top of $7.3 billion in subsidies the Energy Department has spent on carbon capture and storage and related activities since 2009.

Exxon has run advertisements in U.S. media outlets, including The Post, where it has framed its carbon capture efforts as part of the company’s social commitment to addressing global warming. The Post came under fire last month for publishing online advertising from Exxon in the form of an interview with an executive about carbon capture next to columns about climate change, without prominently marking the ads as a paid promotion.

“ExxonMobil has captured more CO2 than any other company since the inception of the technology,” the company said in one news release.

Oswald, who became vice president of strategy/advocacy at the company’s low-carbon solutions division this year, outlined some of Exxon’s plans for carbon capture technology during the panel discussion. Exxon is exploring whether it and other companies can make Houston a hub for a project to remove huge amounts CO2 released by Texas’s oil and gas industry, he said, by storing massive quantities of captured carbon underneath the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico.

Many scientists believe carbon capture could play a helpful role in keeping the global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to preindustrial levels. The world has already warmed at least 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), and researchers warn that a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius or more could trigger dangerous tipping points such as the melting of vast ice sheets and massive sea level rise.

Carbon capture begins to gain ground as a climate change solution

Oswald told the audience that Exxon sees federal support for carbon capture as a business opportunity.

“It’s an expensive endeavor, and we all are going to pay for it either as taxpayers, or as consumers because there’s no other source of funding for that to happen,” said Oswald, who has worked at Exxon for over 30 years according to his LinkedIn profile.

Responding to a question from another panelist about why the United States should subsidize carbon capture, while other major economies are not taking aggressive steps to curb their emissions, Oswald said there is opportunity in a market of naive consumers.

“It’s a strange deal for a scientist but people are willing to pay a green premium. All around the world they are showing they’re willing to do that,” he said. “Why they are doing that? That’s another question. There are lots of markets that, I mean people bought sugar-free, there’s all kinds of markets that are unhinged from hard facts.”

Despite internal research identifying the risks from greenhouse gases decades ago, Exxon has a long history of casting doubt on the scientific consensus on global warming. In the mid-1990s, then-CEO Lee Raymond said in a speech that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” Its officials questioned the findings of researchers at the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change after George W. Bush took office in 2001.

But the company has since sought to portray itself as squarely on the side of most scientists and has launched a public-relations campaign touting its efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through methods like carbon capture.

Exxon’s campaign comes as the company is facing increasing pressure to curb its contribution to global warming. In May, renegade investors seeking to shift the company away from oil and gas managed to win three seats on Exxon’s board of directors despite Woods’s opposition.

Last month’s congressional hearing was sparked by a secretly recorded conversation with an Exxon executive, who called the Biden administration’s goals for cutting greenhouse gases “insane” and said that the company had funded “shadow groups” that fought government action on global warming. The activist group Greenpeace UK taped the executive under the pretense of a job recruiting session, and a British news channel broadcast it in July.

The controversy prompted Woods to issue a statement calling the executive’s comments “entirely inconsistent with our commitment to the environment, transparency and what our employees and management team have worked toward since I became CEO four years ago.”

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