The Exxon Papers: More Evidence Oil Giant Saw Future Climate Threat Clearly

October 8, 2015

They Knew.
If you’ve been following the historic spotlight that Inside Climate News has been shining on Oil Giant Exxon’s long-time research into climate change impacts – well, you’re way ahead of most human beings. The silence of the mainstream media outlets on this story may be as stunning as the story itself, which is saying a lot.

Meanwhile, as I’ve posted yesterday, we’re witnessing a classic exercise in misdirection, as Congress begins investigating – not what Exxon knew and when they knew it – but rather, the small group of scientists who have had the temerity to write a letter asking the President and Attorney General to file a Racketeering case against the fossil fuel industry, much as was done against the tobacco industry, almost 20 years ago. 

When coupled with the emerging consensus and sense of urgency that polls are showing among a majority of voters, heading into an election year that will likely be one of the hottest in history – the pieces are in place for a game changing political earthquake.


Inside Climate News:

In 1980, as Exxon Corp. set out to develop one of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas, it found itself facing an unfamiliar risk: the project would emit immense amounts of carbon dioxide, adding to the looming threat of climate change.

The problem cropped up shortly after Exxon signed a contract with the Indonesian state oil company to exploit the Natuna gas field in the South China Sea—big enough to supply the blossoming markets of Japan, Taiwan and Korea with liquefied natural gas into the 21st century.

Assessing the environmental impacts, Exxon Research and Engineering quickly identified Natuna’s greenhouse gas problem. The reservoir was contaminated with much more carbon dioxide than normal. It would have to be disposed of somehow—and simply venting it into the air could have serious consequences, Exxon’s experts warned.

Exxon’s dawning realization that carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect posed a danger to the world collided with the company’s fossil fuel ambitions.

“They were being farsighted,” recalled John L. Woodward, who wrote an internal report in 1981 on Natuna’s climate implications.

“They weren’t sure when CO2 controls would be required and how it would affect the economics of the project.”

Since 1978, long before the general public grew aware of the climate crisis, Exxon had worked at the cutting edge of emerging climate science. At first, Exxon’s internal studies had described climate change as an important but somewhat distant problem. Now, sooner than expected, climate considerations were affecting strategic business decisions. Natuna was one example; another was Exxon’s proposed leap into synthetic fuels.

Releasing Natuna’s carbon pollution would make it “the world’s largest point source emitter of CO2 and raises concern for the possible incremental impact of Natuna on the COgreenhouse problem,” declared an October 1984 report from Exxon’s top climate modeler, Brian Flannery, and his boss Andrew Callegari.

Documents and other evidence uncovered by InsideClimate News also show that Exxon calculated that Natuna’s emissions would have twice the climate impact of coal. The company spent years researching possible remedies, but found them all too costly or ineffective, ICN’s eight-month investigation found.

Exxon managers saw the problem as both technically vexing and environmentally fraught. Not only was there carbon dioxide to be dealt with, it was mixed with toxic, flammable hydrogen sulfide, a contributor to acid rain.

“I think we generally agree that we are seeking a method of disposing of the off gases in a manner which will minimize the risk of environmental damage,” wrote Exxon’s manager of environmental affairs Alvin M. Natkin in an October 1983 letter to Natuna project executive Richard L. Preston.  “We must also have the data which will be convincing not only to ourselves but also to the international environmental community that the method selected is environmentally sound.”

The company consulted with leading scientists, including NASA’s pioneering expert James E. Hansen, to understand the effect on atmospheric CO2 concentrations if the gas from Natuna were released. It sent staff to facilities at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada to simulate the diffusion of the gas into ocean water. Over the years, Exxon scientists developed mathematical models to assess the options.

Because the project was so complex and expensive, the Natuna staff presented regular updates, including details of the CO2 issue, to Exxon’s board of directors, whose members were drawn almost entirely from the company’s upper management.

Some Exxon directors accepted the emerging climate consensus. Others were less sure of the science, but agreed that as popular attention to global warming mounted, releasing Natuna’s greenhouse gases into the air could turn into a public relations debacle, former employees said.

Either way, directors repeatedly told project staff Natuna could not proceed unless the CO2 was handled in a cost-effective way that did not harm the atmosphere.

“Their concerns kept getting stronger,” said a former employee with knowledge of the project, who asked for anonymity because the issue remains sensitive even years later. “Their attitude went from, ‘Maybe we have to remove the CO2,’ to, as the years went by, their saying, ‘This project cannot go ahead unless we remove the CO2.'”

In 1984, Lee Raymond joined Exxon’s board of directors. A senior vice president, Raymond’s responsibilities included overseeing Exxon Research and Engineering, which conducted the Natuna studies. In the summer of 1985, ER&E prepared documents for Raymond about a study that examined disposing Natuna’s CO2 into the ocean, an Exxon memo shows.

Eventually, Raymond would rise to become chairman and chief executive, and to lead a public campaign discrediting the scientific consensus on climate change and fighting measures to control greenhouse gas emissions.

In the meantime Exxon, now known as ExxonMobil, appears to have kept its years of climate-related deliberations about Natuna mostly to itself. Exxon only began to disclose climate risks to its shareholders years after it first weighed Natuna’s risks, federal filings show.

ExxonMobil declined to answer specific questions for this article. In July, when ICN questioned him for an earlier article about Natuna, spokesman Richard Keil said, “It is company policy not to comment on potential commercial operations.”

The Carbon Footprint

First discovered by the Italian oil company Agip in the early 1970s, the Natuna gas field lies about 700 miles north of Jakarta and holds about 46 trillion cubic feet of recoverable methane, or natural gas. But the undersea formation also contains 154 trillion cubic feet of other gases, mostly CO2.

To liquefy Natuna’s methane for shipping, it must be supercooled. At those low temperatures, the carbon dioxide would freeze into dry ice and clog equipment, so it had to be removed. The question was where to put it.

The Indonesian government and the state-run oil company had no issue with releasing the CO2 into the air, former Exxon staff said. But awareness of carbon dioxide’s impact on global temperatures had been seeping through Exxon, from its rank-and-file engineers to its board of directors.

“Within Exxon in those days, there were probably two to three believers in global warming for every denier or those who emphasized the uncertainty,” said another former Exxon Research executive, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Among the key people searching for a solution was Gilbert Gervasi, the Natuna project manager, who worked in Houston under executive Richard Preston for Esso Eastern, the unit that oversaw projects in East Asia. Gervasi spearheaded the effort from the early to mid-1980s to figure out how big Natuna’s carbon footprint would be and what to do about it.

In a Feb. 3, 1981 letter to Gene Northington at Research and Engineering, Gervasi challenged a “rough calculation” that Northington had made of the CO2 emissions from producing Natuna’s gas and burning it as fuel. Northington’s math showed Natuna’s total CO2 emissions would be “no higher than what would be emitted by burning” an equivalent amount of coal, Gervasi wrote.

After conducting what he described as “more rigorous” calculations, Gervasi concluded “that the total release of CO2 from producing Natuna gas and burning of the LNG manufactured from the gas would be almost twice that emitted by burning an equivalent amount of coal.”

Six months later, Research and Engineering sent Gervasi a report, entitled “Possible Climate Modification Effects of Releasing Carbon Dioxide to the Atmosphere from the Natuna LNG Project.” It commissioned assessments of Natuna by seven eminent atmospheric scientists, including the climatologists Helmut Landsberg of University of Maryland and NASA’s Hansen.

The report, written by John Woodward, a high level engineer at Exxon Research, presented a mixed message. Natuna would constitute a “small fraction of worldwide CO2 budget,” it found. But it also found that “emissions are nonetheless substantial by several comparisons.”

Disposal Options

Woodward examined the option of flaring the CO2 after it had been stripped from the natural gas.

Although not combustible, the CO2 had to be flared rather than simply vented because it was mixed with hydrogen sulfide, which is often burned to convert it to safer compounds. But flaring would not eliminate Natuna’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Next, Woodward looked at releasing the CO2 into seawater around Natuna, a process known as sparging. The gas from the Natuna well would be piped to a nearby platform where the valuable methane would be separated from the waste CO2 and the toxic hydrogen sulfide. Those unwanted gases, in turn, would then be sent from the platform to a pipe about 300 feet below on the ocean floor.  The pipe would be arranged in a circle 6 miles in diameter and the gas would be bubbled out of perforations every six to 10 feet, like aerating an aquarium.

Woodward said that in 1982 he visited the oceanography department at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia to use their equipment to collect data for sparging models. Dalhousie had a tank about 40 feet high and 10 feet wide, filled with ocean water. Researchers released CO2 at the bottom of the tank, and Woodward measured the size and quantity of the bubbles at various depths as they rose to the surface to understand how the gas dissipated.

In the end, the hydrogen sulfide released with the CO2 stymied the sparging idea, Woodward said. Exxon worried that a toxic plume might kill fish and result in bad press.

Back to Square One

The Natuna project staff and Research and Engineering specialists probed for answers through the 1980s, sometimes revisiting the approaches that Woodward had examined.

In October 1983, Gervasi sent a letter and background paper on Natuna to about a dozen staff and executives from different branches of the corporation to develop “a study program which over the next 1-2 years will put Exxon in a position to reach a final decision on the environmental aspects of the project.”

The background paper laid out options to dispose of the CO2, none of them optimal.  Releasing the waste gases into the air remained the simplest, cheapest method. “However, this raises environmental questions concerning the ‘greenhouse’ effect of the CO2,” the paper said.

Gervasi’s paper said the only effective way to dispose of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide without harming the atmosphere or ocean would involve injecting the gases underground into the Natuna formation itself or a nearby reservoir.  But that option appeared prohibitively expensive.

Thwarted by cost or environmental impact, Exxon returned to mathematical models over the next two years to home in on a suitable approach.

By February 1984, Exxon Research began modelling once more the feasibility of sparging.

The scientists found that the ocean would release the CO2 into the atmosphere, probably in 10 years or sooner. Further, increased CO2 would raise the acidity of the ocean water, damaging the local environment. “Our conclusion is that atmospheric discharge is preferable to seawater sparging,” Flannery and others concluded.

Study after study returned Exxon back to square one with Natuna: it held the rights to an enormously promising field but was unable to develop it because it was unwilling to pump so much CO2 into the air.

The scientists’ conclusions were reflected in papers prepared for a 1985 meeting with Lee Raymond on Exxon Research’s activities.

Their synopsis said: “We modeled the sub-sea disposal of CO2 in the shallow basin near the Natuna site and found that retention in the sea is only about a decade, as opposed to 1000 years if the CO2 is disposed in the deep ocean. We recommend that the sub-sea sparging of CO2 not be implemented since it offers little advantage over direct atmospheric release.”

By the late 1980s, Exxon started to explore pumping the CO2 back into the Natuna formation, the safest option but probably the priciest.

The company found a cost-effective method to dispose of half of Natuna’s CO2 underground, but calculated that the rest of the CO2 would still be the equivalent of half of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, said Roger Witherspoon, a former Program Officer in Corporate Contributions in the Public Affairs department.

Company officials asked Witherspoon to find a way to plant 100,000 trees annually to offset Natuna’s remaining CO2 emissions. The total acreage would eventually equal the size of Connecticut, Witherspoon said.

As Witherspoon researched the options starting around 1993, Exxon had embarked on a public campaign casting doubt on climate science as a basis for strong policy actions. Internally, the attitude was different.

“It was that greenhouse gas buildup could pose a threat to our business,” said Witherspoon, a longtime journalist who worked at Exxon’s Texas headquarters from 1990 to 1995. “You didn’t want climate change caused by oil and gas. So the responsible thing to do was offset any greenhouse gases you were putting into the atmosphere.”

Witherspoon said Exxon started his tree planting plan, but he does not know how long it lasted.

Exxon continued to investigate possibilities for responsibly disposing of Natuna’s CO2. The project remains dormant, but Exxon never gave up. After an on-and-off relationship with Indonesia, the company still holds the license, which is up for renewal next summer.


16 Responses to “The Exxon Papers: More Evidence Oil Giant Saw Future Climate Threat Clearly”

  1. […] by the Green Man on Exxon’s Natuna gas field, or, as I prefer to say these days, the field of explosive […]

    • Commit political suicide, we much? (that’s a li’l Sharpton-speak, for those of you living in Rio Linda)

      Guys. The “small group of scientists who have had the timerity [sic] to write a letter” you speak of claimed the corrupt actions of corporations and other organizations had been extensively documented, but they cited just six sources for the accusation which in turn spiral right back to one highly questionable source who never offered a shred of evidence to back up his corruption accusation.

      And this stuff that Inside Climate News is dredging up is from a time before the formation of the IPCC – or as the memo you have at the top indicates, a time when the global cooling fad was all the rage. You remember, when Stephen Schneider was on Leonard Nimoy’s show speculating on geoengineering efforts to stop it and what could go wrong with spreading soot on glaciers to melt ’em. But Inside Climate News has found what evidence so far showing Exxon officials mapped out a plan in advance to have scientists lie for them in case someone like Al Gore pops up ten years into the future spouting pro-global warming stuff??

      Any of you guys old enough to remember who the villain du jour was back in the early 1990s? Top billing for ‘scientist corruptor’ wasn’t Exxon. Of course Inside Climate News can always cite the Youtube video of Al Gore at the Davos conference in 2008 where he said, “Exxon Mobil has funded 40 different front groups that have all been a part of a strategic persuasion campaign to, in their own words ‘reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.'” Yep, that’ll turn out well….

      Meanwhile, push conspiracy theory we much? In case you fellers haven’t caught it yet, the new Chair of the IPCC is Hoesung Lee. …… Who worked at Exxon in 1978.
      “Two Thumbs Up for this comment!” — Sinclair & Cook

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Peter gave this a thumbs up?

      • You are using a paranormal nuttery show as a key source? The show hosted by Leonard Nimoy, “In Search Of…” seriously advanced claims of ancient astronauts, Bigfoot, Atlantis as a continent in the Atlantic, ESP, ghosts, the Loch Ness Monster and that Stonehenge is literally magical, (and that’s just Season 1).

        As for the global cooling thing: Name a year when the total number of serious long-term cooling forecasts outnumbered long-term warming forecasts. Now, name a year when there were any serious cooling forecasts that involve an emissions scenario that even vaguely reflects reality.

        • Denigrate the “In Search of…” show as you did and you denigrate the late IPCC scientist Stephen Schneider as well, who was a guest on the show speculating on potential hazards of extreme measures to stop global cooling. Deny that this event did not happen, and you only dig a deeper hole for yourself.

          Meanwhile, if you place all your faith and trust in the mainstream media and its ceaseless chants about the settled science of global warming which supposedly come from an unabated multi-decade lineage of pro-warming forecasts, how does it follow that this same mainstream media could be so egregiously wrong back in the ’60s-’70s. Or did you not think that problem all the way through?

      • greenman3610 Says:

        Russel, I don’t know the meaning of your attributing ‘thumbs up” to me is, but I’ll ask you now to stop it. You are welcome to contribute, but please do not misrepresent me or my views.

        • Understandable that you have many other things to attend to and may not necessarily have the time to read through all the comment sections. This “thumbs up” thing stems from a diatribe commenter “dumb old dog” threw many months ago, probably as a result of seeing my Alex Adair comment ( ) receiving more upvotes than down, along with various others of mine getting upvoted when “d.o.g.” figured nobody here would do such a thing. So, I being a person of subtle humor, borrowed the old Siskel & Ebert “two thumbs up” line simply because it is possible to upvote my own comments more than once via your own comment system which permits it. In essence, you give a ‘by default’ upvote to my comments by not having a system which only permits a one-time up or down vote by any given reader. Think about it: if my own upvotes don’t accurately reflect genuine votes, then the same applies to anybody doing multiple downvotes of comments.

          I’ll be more than happy to stop with the signature line I’ve been using. But I wonder if you will reciprocate in the name of civil discourse by deleting any comments employing profanity or disguised profanity? Surely you’ll agree that profanity doesn’t advance an argument an inch down the road, and you’ll note that not one of my comments throughout my entire history here contained any. Might you also consider that personal accusations offered also need to be backed up by evidence? If, for example, I explicitly claimed one of your commenters was a tax cheat, wouldn’t it be incumbent on me to provide an IRS or other legal case file proving such a situation exists?

      • The 1971 Rasool-Schneider paper predicted that the Earth could cool by as much as 3.5 C IF the amount of sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere quadrupled.

        SO2 causes acid rain and affects human health. Therefore, Clean Air Acts were enacted in a number of countries. The 4X increase projection failed to materialize. Sulfate emissions have been decreasing since the 1970s.

        Although, the quantitative value of forcing (dimming) attributable to current amounts of short-lived aerosols is significantly less certain than the well understood forcing (heating) of long-lived CO2 and methane, aerosols currently offset a significant percentage of GHG heating.

  2. Andy Lee Robinson Says:

    Let’s hope it never gets developed.
    It may be needed hundreds of thousands of years from now to help offset a glacial period.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      LOL. Belts and suspenders stuff. We have already “offset” the glacial period we should have soon been entering, and likely the one that would appear 100,000+ years after that one.

      And that may be a good thing. Rather than worry about flooding, just think of all the ports that would dry up and be many miles from the ocean if sea level went down because the water was being locked up in glaciers. To say nothing of what those glaciers would do when they reach New York City and Boston and London (again) and scrape them off the earth. Pick your poison.

      • petermogensen Says:

        There was not glacial period in sight the the first at least 16.000 years (and probably 50.000 years).
        Holocene happens to be a specially lucky interglacial with good prospects for being very long. Long interglacials happen every ~400.000 years, but Holocene is remarkably special.
        So we had plenty of time to figure out a way to raise CO2 levels…

        • petermogensen Says:

          Don’t know who thought voting that comment down gave any insight… but try read this article:

          Click to access archer.2005.trigger.pdf

          Especially figure 3.

          Try look at the Milankovitch cycle effect on – say – the Wikipedia graph:

          (black line) … not the time scale. The effect is practically zero for the next 50.000 years. The Holocene is special.

          Those arguing that we are close to a new ice age or that we were close the lower limit for plants wrt. CO2 or other stupid arguments to try to make the CO2 rise and warming seem like a good thing simply ignore the fact that there were NO prospect of the climate changing – until we fucked it up.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Yep, the Holocene is history, and we have overridden Milankovitch.

            Welcome to the Anthropocene in all its glory!

            The Grand Experiment continues, and where it will lead is anybody’s guess. IMO, the planet will not see another ice age for a very long time.

      • earlosatrun Says:

        Couldn’t see a way to reply to the last comment you make on this thread.

        I can see one way that an ice age could be brought about; nuclear war.

        A nuclear winter would counteract the warming effect of the carbon, for a while. I don’t think anyone would actually endorse such a solution, but that would do the job; in a sledgehammery sort of way.

        • MorinMoss Says:

          Volcanic activity on the scale seen during the 19th century would take us back a long way to cooler global temps – for a while – especially if the lowered solar output continues.

          But we wouldn’t drop all the way back to a Little Ice Age; more like the post-WW2 years, I think.

  3. otter17 Says:

    Mind blowing that there could be a tactic to fund denial outlets while being cognizant of the risks.

    Today there was an article out of the AP about the particularly bad coral bleaching events this year.

    “We may be looking at losing somewhere in the range of 10 to 20 percent of the coral reefs this year,” NOAA coral reef watch coordinator Mark Eakin said.

    To think we could have avoided the worst of this if back then Exxon and others took a stand to change the course of energy.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: