Besieged by court battles over its past positions on climate change, ExxonMobil has added a climate scientist to its board of directors. Some environmental groups see that as a positive thing; others call it too little, too late to make amends for contributing to global warming.
The oil giant announced that it had added Susan Avery, a physicist and atmospheric scientist, and former president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. During her career, Avery authored or co-authored more than 80 peer-reviewed articles on atmospheric dynamics and variability, the company said.
Avery served in administrative posts from 2004 to 2007 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she is professor emeritus. From 1994 to 2004, Avery served as director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a collaboration between the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The appointment, which brings the number of ExxonMobil directors to 13, comes as the company’s former chief executive Rex Tillerson is taking up the position of secretary of state under President Trump, who has called climate change “a hoax.” In confirmation hearings, Tillerson said he believed climate change was real and that human activity contributed to it, though he hedged about the urgency of the threat. The company’s new chief executive is Darren W. Woods.
The company is also in the midst of a fight with the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts, both of whom have issued subpoenas to determine whether ExxonMobil concealed from the public and investors what it knew about the climate effects of fossil fuels as early as the 1970s.
One of the environmental groups that has supported the attorneys’ general efforts said the appointment of Avery was a fig leaf. “This is a little late in the game,” 350.org’s communications director Jamie Henn said in a statement. “It’s hard to believe this is little more than a PR stunt meant to pave over the decades the company spent deceiving the public about the crisis.”
But the Union of Concerned Scientists saw it as “an important victory,” though the group noted that while she was director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Avery made controversial decisions to accept major funding from oil and gas companies.
Avery is “a respected climate scientist and clearly understands that one of the implications of climate science is the need to move away from burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible,” said Peter Frumhoff, UCS’s director of science and policy.
But Frumhoff said that ExxonMobil needed to do more. “We need to transition from what Exxon’s done to what Exxon does,” he said. “How will Exxon change its behavior to transition from a company pushing back strongly against climate policies to one that accepts the need for regulation and identifies a path forward with reducing its emissions?”
Frumhoff, who has been subpoenaed by ExxonMobil in an effort by the company to undermine the attorneys general inquiry into the company’s climate policies, said Avery’s appointment would not defuse that controversy. “That kind of scorched-earth legal strategy they’ve been following is egregious and inappropriate.”