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Rex Tillerson (Exxon Mobil) on Climate Change (energy/climate realism trumps alarmism)

At the May 29, 2013, annual meeting of Exxon Mobil in Dallas, CEO Rex Tillerson adroitly responded to questions concerning the human influence on climate and energy choices in light of climate science. His points? The science is uncertain as to the magnitude of change; there has not been warming in the last decade; and fossil fuels are necessary for the masses, particularly the energy poor. As he asked a questioner:

How do you want to deal with that great social challenge to what good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers in the process of those efforts when you don’t know exactly what your impacts are going to be?

Friendly Floor Comments

Some statements from the floor were friendly. “It’s funny,” said one. “You have helped to find enough oil and gas in this country so that the protestors here [could] leave their heated and air conditioned homes and fly and drive here so they can protest the way Exxon runs their business.” Said another:

We wish to commend the company’s management in this regard for not surrendering and for standing up for what not only is good for this company but quite literally to the United States itself. We urge our fellow shareholders to stand up for liberty lower taxes, government accountability and free markets….

In this regard, Tillerson did not state any need or preference for a unilateral U.S. carbon dioxide emissions tax (carbon tax) as a way to address emissions. Resting his case on climate realism, he defused a controversy and made his opponents look like a fringe, religious group in the court of public opinion.

Climate Views

These comments (emphasis added) are taken from the entire transcript of the May 29th meeting.

I think our views on climate change and the risk of climate change have been fairly well described both in public forums where I and others have spoken as well as, in publications in the ways we have expressed review climate change as a serious issue, it does present serious risk.

I will maintain the view that I have had for some time now, but notwithstanding all the advancements that have been made in gathering more data, instrumenting the planet so that we understand how climate conditions on the planet are changing. Notwithstanding all that data, our ability to project with any degree of certainty the future is continuing to be very limited.

If you examine the temperature record of the last decade, it really hadn’t changed. I know you will like to hear that as it doesn’t comport to some of the views of others, but last 10 years’ temperatures had been relatively flat in a period when is been noted greenhouse gas concentrations have been rising.

That’s not to drawing a conclusion about anything other than to make the point, our ability to understand all of the relationships between emissions and the environment and the feedback loops continues to be one of the science communities grand challenges and there are some of the best scientists in the world working on that.

And we support their work; continue to support their work because we want to understand that as well. So as we said in the past that how do you want to deal with something or the outcome is unknowable but the risk are significant. So that’s why we have concentrated on we do not have a readily available replacement for the energy that provide the means of living that the world has today. Not [only] our standard of living but … more importantly a standard of living that more than two billion people on the planet are below anything any of us would find acceptable from poverty, hunger, education standpoint.

How do you want to deal with that great social challenge? To what good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers in the process of those efforts when you don’t know exactly what your impacts are going to be?

So we have taken a much more balanced view and we said let’s manage the things, we know how to do manage today.

That’s why we’re strong proponents of energy efficiency, we’re strong proponents of how we consume energy and consuming it at a much more efficient way and we’re strong proponents of looking at other options for energy supplies and sources and we have invested in a broader ray of those in terms of the investigation so that we are well informed as to the likelihood of their having broad-based application on a scale that will serve human need across the planet.

There is nothing out there today that will do that. When windmills won’t do it, solar panel won’t do it. Bio-fuels won’t do it and all of those come with consequential issues as well.

It’s not that we do not support continued advancement [with biofuels], but I think that in this discussion which is vitally important to all mankind. I think we could have a much more use discussion if we could find the place in the middle which is where 80% of people are and talk about a reasonable approach that acknowledges what we know, acknowledges what we don’t know, and looks at all the tools available to us to manage that outcome.

The engineered solutions side of that is–I’ll maybe biased because I’m an engineer and … work in a company there is full of scientist and engineers. I have enormous faith in our technology’s ability to find solutions as they present themselves to us which will be a combination of mitigation and adaptation.

And I firmly believe that we will find that way forward but we’re only going to find that way forward if we can put all our energies into that and less of our energies into the most extreme view points on both end of this debate ….

I can’t conclude there is something magical about 350 [parts of million CO2 atmospheric concentration] because that suggests these models are very competent, and our examination about the models are that they’re not competent.

And in fact, if you read the IPCC report, they published a very broad range of possible outcomes because they acknowledge the models competencies are questionable… So I don’t know if there 350 or 450 if you look at outlook as you’re seeing our outlook has range greenhouse gas emissions peaking and declining at some point in the future as technology takes hold more broadly across society, but it does lead to a much concentration of greenhouse gases.

We do not see a viable pathway with any known technology today to achieve the 350 outcome that is not devastating economies, societies, and people’s health and wellbeing around the world. You cannot get there.

So the real question is, you want to keep arguing about that and pursuing something that cannot be achieved at cost that would be detrimental. Do you want to talk about what’s the pathway we should be, and how do we mitigate and prepare for the consequences as they present themselves because our ability to predict the consequence is simply not that good, sure?

Thank you.

To which we can say to Mr. Tillerson, “Thank you, and get back to finding, transporting, refining, and marketing the underground treasure we better know as oil and gas.

5 comments

1 Eddie Devere { 06.04.13 at 9:56 am }

I think that Exxon Mobil is a good company and should focus on drilling for oil/gas. We will need oil/gas long into the future, and well past the time at which we cap global emissions on CO2. There is a difference between drilling for oil/gas and emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. You can be pro-Exxon Mobil, pro-free-market, and pro-cap-on-global-CO2-emissions. This is the stance of many people in the Libertarian Party here in the US, such as myself.
Unfortunately, CEO Rex Tillerson has shown that he is not fully aware of the case for capping global CO2 emission. It’s not good that a CEO of a global company is unaware of the reason why we need to cap CO2 emissions. We can have heated discussions about whether the cap should be 500 ppm, 600 ppm, or higher. But ultimately, we need to cap the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere for the following reasons:
(a) Warming climate (in particular in the Arctic where warming causes increased sea levels.) http://www.skepticalscience.com/record-arctic-sea-ice-melt-to-levels-unseen-in-millennia.html
(b) Increased sea levels (due to polar ice melting and the fact that water decreases in density at higher temperatures)
(c) More acidic oceans (i.e. less basic oceans). This can effect the ability of some species to form shells.
(d) Long-term exposure to CO2 at concentrations above 1000 ppm can have health effects on animals (such as humans.) [Note: as I'm writing this comment, the CO2 levels in the office are being monitored in order to check that they aren't over 1000 ppm. Luckily, the level is only 440 ppm in my office right now because of good ventilation.]

This is the basic case for capping CO2 emissions. It’s important to also highlight that you can be pro-fossil fuel and pro-cap-on-CO2 because we can still use fossil fuels at power plants. We just have to capture and store the CO2 that’s generated at the plant. (There are already a number of commercial demonstrations of this technology. Capturing and storing CO2 at power plants will not destroy the global economy, but it will likely mean higher electricity prices than if there were no capture and storage of CO2. That’s why it’s important that we find the right balance between keeping the economy strong and keeping CO2 levels at a safe level.)

Note: Global average temperatures have appeared to have flat-lined largely due mostly to the really warm temperatures in 1998. If you ignore 1998, global temperatures have continued to rise, and in the Arctic continue to rise rapidly (this is as expected because, due to the overlap in the IR spectrum with H2O, increased levels of CO2 should increase temperature the most in locations with little water vapor in the atmosphere…such as winter nights in the Arctic.) The warming in the north & south poles is causing increased sea levels. (The current rate over the last two years has been ~10mm/yr.) http://climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators#seaLevel
I agree with CEO’s comments that we need to tone down the extremism on both sides of the debate. I hope that Master Resources will lead in toning down its extremism by acknowledging that we need to cap CO2 levels well below 1000 ppm. This might be a good way start for getting environmental extremists to tone down their alarmism (i.e. blaming every hurricane and tornado on CO2 emissions. This is obviously silly because we might as well blame a butterfly in the Amazon on Hurricane Sandy.) My hope is that there are enough reasonable people in the middle to keep the extremists on both sides from causing us to lose sight on the real goal: having a strong economy while keeping CO2 levels below ~500-700 ppm.

2 Jerome Hudson { 06.04.13 at 2:27 pm }

CEO Tillerson appears to me to have an excellent grasp both of the uncertanties in the science and the horrible costs of foregoing our use of fossil fuels.
I partly agree with Devere’s concerns, but would like to correct one minor point: removing the 1998 spike from the temperature data doesn’t change the curve that much – there isn’t much trend to be seen for the last 15 years. See, for instance:
http://www.drroyspencer.com/2013/06/uah-global-temperature-update-for-may-2013-0-07-deg-c/
for the latest UAH satellite data.
The doomsayers are mostly basing their arguments on models with some unrealistic assumptions (e.g. large, positive feedback), and ignoring what’s really taking place in the atmosphere.

3 rbradley { 06.04.13 at 3:12 pm }

Eddie:

Some of your statements are troubling:

“You can be pro-Exxon Mobil, pro-free-market, and pro-cap-on-global-CO2-emissions. This is the stance of many people in the Libertarian Party here in the US, such as myself.”

Question: Can you point to a libertarian organization or group that supports cap-and-trade domestically or for the world?

“I hope that Master Resources will lead in toning down its extremism by acknowledging that we need to cap CO2 levels well below 1000 ppm.”

Why is it extremism to believe that government fails in the face of ‘market failure,’ and that international climate planning is a chimera? Maybe you have some 100 or 200 year plan, but the vast majority will say we don’t know the future or know what technology will be in our lifetimes or our children’s lifetimes to start such a grand experiment.

“My hope is that there are enough reasonable people in the middle to keep the extremists on both sides from causing us to lose sight on the real goal: having a strong economy while keeping CO2 levels below ~500-700 ppm.”

The real goal is to depoliticize climate as part of depoliticizing economies and promote personal freedom (as in no CO2 police). Wealth is health.

4 Donald Hertzmark { 06.04.13 at 7:24 pm }

Eddie,
The reasons for polar ice melt are not clear, as there has been no global warming overall. Perhaps it is time to take another look at POP (plain old pollution). Soot (ok, particulates to the EPA) from Chinese and Indian coal-fired power plants, those built without emission controls, settle in the Arctic regions. This reduces the albedo (reflectiveness) of the snow, allowing greater transfer of heat from sunlight.

Control POP and just maybe the Arctic ice melt will be reduced. It will certainly make life more livable in China and India, which bear the most direct burdens of their generation of POP.

Or just maybe the ice melt is due to an underwater volcano in the Arctic Ocean (http://wattsupwiththat.com/2008/06/25/surprise-explosive-volcanic-eruption-under-the-arctic-ice-found/).

5 Global Warming Is Rapidly Accelerating | limitless life { 12.26.13 at 11:32 am }

[...] (And, for anyone who wants the detailed transcript of Tillerson’s remarks, that is available  here , and it shows that he was alternately acknowledging and dismissing the overwhelming climatological [...]

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