Exxon Mobil’s relationship with the New York Times is a case study in how the fossil fuel industry’s climate denialism has evolved over the past 20 years. Beginning in the 1970s, Exxon Mobil published an “advertorial” every Thursday on the New York Times editorial page. The quarter-page, essay-style ads were designed to mimic a Times op-ed. Starting in the 1980s, doubt about the seriousness of human-driven climate change was a repeated theme. The ads came with titles including “Apocalypse no,” “Reset the alarm,” “Less heat, more light on climate change,” and “Climate change: a degree of uncertainty.”
According to a lawsuit Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed against Exxon Mobil last week, the oil company’s use of the New York Times editorial section “to shift public perception was among the most significant and longest regular — in this case, weekly — uses of media to influence public and stakeholder opinion in modern U.S. history.”
The ads failed to mention that Exxon’s products’ emissions risked effects that would be “catastrophic (at least for a substantial proportion of the earth’s population),” as an Exxon scientist advised in 1981.
Today, the message has changed, but the method is the same. Exxon Mobil’s contemporary equivalent is native ads produced by T Brand Studio, which sells “the New York Times’s proven recipe for storytelling” created by “talent that’s drawn from media, marketing and journalistic backgrounds.”
A recent Exxon ad published on the New York Times website was titled “The Future of Energy? It May Come From Where You Least Expect.” The heavily designed, article-style ad focused on Exxon’s biofuels research. “We’re aiming to have the technical ability to produce 10,000 barrels of algae-based biofuel a day by 2025,” Rob Brown, an algae researcher, is quoted as saying.
The ad does not mention that the goal only equates to 0.2 percent of the corporation’s current refinery capacity, nor does it note Exxon’s plans for fossil fuel production in the years to come. Last March, the company estimated that by 2024, it would produce 1 million barrels per day of oil and gas in the Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico — five times more than what it produces today. And it certainly doesn’t mention scientists’ assertion that governments and corporations need to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent before 2030 to have a shot at avoiding catastrophic climate impacts.
According to Healey, Exxon ads like the one by T Brand Studios are “false and misleading” and violate the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act.
On October 24, Healey became the second state attorney general to file a climate liability lawsuit against Exxon Mobil. The suit is broader than similar litigation in New York, where a trial began last week, centered on alleged Exxon securities fraud. Healey alleges that, in addition to the Times ads, the corporation’s marketing of “green” petroleum products under brands like Mobil 1 and Synergy illegally deceives consumers into believing that Exxon’s products can protect the world against the ravages of carbon emissions, without disclosing that the corporations’ products are an existential threat to humanity.
Like the New York case, the Massachusetts case highlights the way the corporation has deceived investors by using a misleading proxy cost of carbon. The cost of carbon is a price meant to account for the regulatory expense of carbon emissions. Exxon told investors it was deciding which projects to invest in according to one carbon price, while it actually used a different, lower price. In effect, investors believed that Exxon was taking climate change more seriously than it actually was, as it invested in some of the most carbon-emitting projects in the world.
Exxon’s history of denialism is key to the two climate liability cases. The corporation’s predecessor conducted serious climate research as early as the 1950s, and by the late 1970s, Exxon was well aware of coming crisis and its cause. In fact, in 1982, the corporation predicted with incredible accuracy 2019’s disturbingly high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and the 1 degree Celsius temperature rise we’ve already met. Yet by the 1990s, its CEO was making statements that flew in the face of that research, sowing doubt about whether climate change was real and funding a wide network of politicians and institutions meant to challenge regulatory regimes that might have prevented extinctions, cultural collapses, hydrological crises, and generations of death and suffering.
The suits center on a more insidious form of modern-day denialism, though. Today, corporations like Exxon spend vast amounts of resources dressing up as climate realists, while at the same time obstructing climate policy behind the scenes and accelerating the crisis by continuing to pull oil out of the tar sands of Canada, the shale formations of Texas, and the deep-water oil deposits of the Gulf of Mexico. The Massachusetts complaint describes Exxon Mobil’s evolving deception playbook.
The “green” Mobil 1 brand — a motor oil dyed a garish green — is a case in point. In 2018, Exxon Mobil was part of a coalition that fought and killed federal policy that would have increased car fuel efficiency and significantly cut down on fossil fuel emissions from the transportation sector. Meanwhile, the corporation has promoted its Mobil 1 product as key to increasing fuel efficiency, by using a new low-viscosity formula. Exxon says another brand, Synergy, which includes an additive to all gasoline in Massachusetts, can “help customers reduce their emissions and improve their energy efficiency” in part by reducing engine deposits.
According to Sharon Eubanks, who led the Justice Department’s racketeering litigation against Big Tobacco, the moment is reflective of Tobacco’s turn to “light” or “mild” cigarettes. “After they realized there was this huge scare, they thought their product was going to become extinct,” Eubanks said. “They were afraid people would quit.”
The five largest publicly traded oil majors — Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Total, and Chevron — together invested more than $1 billion in climate branding and lobbying in the three years after the landmark Paris climate agreement was signed, according to a study by the British nonprofit InfluenceMap. Exxon spent at least $56 million on climate messaging.
“The Paris Climate Accord was a watershed in terms of corporate engagement and investor engagement,” said Ed Collins, the report’s author. Many shareholders began pressuring the corporations to account for their climate impact, and it became increasingly unviable to explicitly advertise climate doubt.
Exxon Mobil began touting its support for a carbon tax (but only under a very specific set of circumstances), and in 2018, it joined the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a coalition of oil and gas CEOs who promote climate solutions like voluntary methane reductions, carbon capture and storage, and energy efficiency — all approaches that would allow them to continue producing oil and gas.
Ultimately, behind the new branding is the same deadly advocacy for deregulation that the corporations have always carried out. In a new InfluenceMap report on advertising by the oil majors on Facebook, Exxon Mobil was far and away the biggest spender, investing $9.6 million, 10 times more than any other oil company, in political ads. A large proportion was spent to defeat state ballot initiatives in the 2018 midterm elections, including a carbon tax in Washington and limits to oil and gas development in Colorado.
Collins argues that deceptive climate messaging matters. “It mixes up the public knowledge and conversation enough to have a detrimental impact on the overall efforts to try to tackle climate change,” he said.
In the federal racketeering case against Big Tobacco, Justice Department lawyers were able to prove that the corporations knew that light cigarettes offered no clear health benefit compared to regular cigarettes. A judge agreed in 2006 that they were designed to “keep smokers smoking; to stop smokers from quitting; to encourage people, especially young people, to start smoking; and to maintain or increase corporate profits.” She forced tobacco companies to publish corrective statements in newspapers and on TV stating that “there is no safe cigarette” and the corporations had “deliberately deceived the American public.” She also ordered companies to stop branding their products as light, mild, or low tar. Corresponding legislation finally went into effect in 2010, banning the labels.
Prior to the federal lawsuit, the four largest tobacco companies signed a massive settlement agreement with state attorneys general. Eubanks is optimistic about the Exxon cases. “If they’re not prepared to come to the table at all, this will go on for quite some time, and I think you’re going to see success in some of these state cases,” she said. “We’re not going to have to wait 50 years to see one of these companies lose.”
Of course, Big Tobacco ultimately survived the litigation. There’s far less room for the oil industry to do the same. Tobacco companies may have continued to cause users to develop cancer, but continued oil production at anywhere near today’s rates will mean, as the lawsuit puts it, “a substantial increase in deadly extreme weather events, coastal property damage, disruptions of fisheries, the spread of vector-borne diseases, large-scale ecosystem disruption, and other unprecedented threats to human populations.”