Voices: Exxon-Mobil has deceived the world – now it must pay reparations

Exxon knew about climate change decades ago but denied it (Getty)
Exxon knew about climate change decades ago but denied it (Getty)

Fossil fuel behemoth Exxon-Mobil is ignoring net zero and planning to sell ever more climate-changing aviation fuel.

Thrusting aside the government’s international commitments, the “jet zero” promises of the aviation industry and the need to develop replacement non-polluting fuels, the company is building a new pipeline from its refinery at Southampton to Heathrow. It is expected to have 140 per cent of the carrying capacity of the one it built in 1972. That’s half as much again to reinforce Exxon’s contribution to global heating.

Not that we should be surprised. After all, this is the company that claimed that the science of climate change was uncertain, even though its own scientists had proved the opposite. Last month, Harvard University’s analysis of Exxon’s own company papers proved what many of us had long thought.

Nearly 30 years ago, their own scientists had informed the company’s directors that the burning of fossil fuels was changing the world’s climate. They even worked out – extremely accurately – the scale of the damage.

The climate change we are seeing today, Exxon knew about for certain, then – yet it denied it and spent $30m financing campaigns to pretend that the scientists didn’t know and therefore governments shouldn’t act. To protect their profits, they insisted there was no proof – when all along they knew the damage they (and the rest of the oil industry) was doing.

So, planned action was stopped in its tracks and the US government programme to counter the climate crisis came to a halt. The convenient excuse that the science was still “uncertain” meant that, all round the world, action stalled. The global warming deniers were given sustenance by the massive public relations campaign of the fossil fuel industry driven by Exxon.

The recent BBC TV documentary series Big Oil v the World demonstrates this perfectly. The devastating result of this cynical action is that nations did little to counter the huge increase in emissions which fuelled Exxon’s profits, while causing catastrophic climate change for the world. Reaching net zero will now cost us all a great deal more. The damage done is much greater because we lost those 20-plus years.

And the company doesn’t show any remorse. Recently, I wrote to the chairman of the UK Exxon subsidiary responsible for the pipeline. Three letters later, he still failed to answer my reiterated simple questions:

  • Was the assessment of the capacity of the new pipeline correct and how did that measure up to Exxon’s net zero commitment?

  • Did Exxon expect the new pipeline to last 50 years like the last so that it would be in operation in 2073 – and how did that fit with the necessary reduction in aviation fossil fuels to which Britain is committed?

  • Could the pipeline be used to transport synthetic fuels or biofuels or had shareholders been consulted on the possibility of this being a stranded asset?

Not one of these questions was answered. Instead, I was continually sent vague generalised replies, signed by the chairman, but always passed through the public relations department.

Exxon’s practice is to deny any inconvenient truth in the same way as it denied climate change. It dismissed the Harvard report out of hand – even though their carefully researched academic assessment was based on Exxon’s own documentation. The BBC’s detailed investigation got similarly dismissed. Incredibly, even though their perfidy is now proven, the UK government is handing Exxon taxpayers’ money to develop a hydrogen hub.

To question cooperation with Exxon is not to suggest that we should not work with the oil and gas industry to fight climate change. Disinvestment will slow down our reaching net zero. Continued investment is vital if the energy companies are to achieve the transition necessary to provide the clean power Britain needs.

Of course, investors should be active in encouraging the fastest and most effective transition to net zero and the companies have to be open to that pressure. No one is perfect – and investors need to keep them all up to the mark – but Shell, Total, and Equinor among others, are clearly committed to the necessary change and deserve support. We should not be ashamed of them, nor refuse their sponsorship – nor, indeed, disinvest.

Yet, in order to become part of the solution, these companies have recognised the damage that fossil fuels have caused and their own role in putting things right. Exxon-Mobil steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any responsibility, let alone admit to its wrongdoing. Its delaying action has given us all a huge bill and we should be looking for reparations. As long as it denies the facts and its unique responsibility for the delay, this is not the company with which to ally.

We should give other businesses our custom. By not being complicit either as partners or customers, those committed to achieving net zero can help Exxon see it is in its financial interest to own up and pay up.

The Rt Hon John Selwyn Gummer, Lord Deben, is chair of the Climate Change Committee, an independent statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008