Lessons from Exxon’s handling of climate change.
Lawrence G. Rawl, remember that name. As the world’s sea levels rise and some parts of the Earth become deserts while others are inundated with rain due to climate change, remember Rawl as the man who put profit ahead of global prosperity. He had an opportunity to become a leader on climate change but instead led a corporation that new reports say turned its back on its own research and financed climate change denial propaganda.
Rawl, former CEO and chairman of Exxon, is dead now, so there is not much use in shaming him. But his legacy of arrogance, greed and perfidy likely will impact the lives of our grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Rawl ticked me off so badly one day in 1989 that I have not purchased gasoline from Exxon for a quarter century. I’m not a big believer in boycotts of national and international companies. They simply don’t work. At the same time, I’m not going to reward a company with my business when its leadership demonstrates corporate irresponsibility.
At the time, the biggest national news was the wreck of the tanker Exxon Valdez and the millions of gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The sight of sea life and birds covered in oil was terrible; yet, as a consumer of petroleum products I was not so naïve as to believe we can have gasoline for our cars without some risk of accidents. I just expect people who have accidents to take responsibility for them.
Not Lawrence G. Rawl.
Exxon at first blamed the disaster on Exxon Shipping Co. Then the blame was shifted to the ship’s captain. Then Rawl started blaming the Coast Guard and the state of Alaska for not doing enough to halt the spread of oil from the accident site. As the public relations disaster grew for Exxon, Rawl decided to hold a live news conference. When asked how the company planned to clean up the oil, he responded, “It is not the role of the chairman of a large worldwide corporation to read every technical plan.” When asked about the nearly 20,000 Americans cutting up or sending back their gasoline credit cards, Rawl blamed the news media, “The reason we’ve got this public relations disaster is because of the media’s reporting of the situation.” When asked how the Exxon spill compared to the Union Carbide disaster in India that killed 3,000 people, Rawl smugly replied, “nobody dead.”
The governor of Alaska, Steve Cowper, accused Exxon of “a systematic and deliberate cover-up.” Two years later, Exxon agreed to pay $900 million to settle civil lawsuits, plead guilty to four environmental crimes and pay a $100 million fine. Rawl’s response? “The settlement will have no noticeable effect on our financial results.”
Rawl’s poor handling of the Exxon Valdez disaster is a classic case of bad public relations and appears in college textbooks across the nation. Now we are learning that Rawl may have been even worse when it came to putting profits ahead of the environment.
Last week, the Dallas Morning News on its front page ran a story by Inside Climate News on how Exxon’s own scientists as early as 1977 identified climate change due to fossil fuels as a potential threat to humanity. An Exxon scientist told corporate leaders in 1978 that “man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
At first, Exxon embraced the science and tried to become a leader in climate change research. But then in the mid-1980s, a dramatic change took place, and the company started financing a public relations campaign denying climate change and fighting any federal regulations or laws that might restrict carbon emissions. Not only that, but the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that Exxon started looking at climate change as a positive: a warming Artic would reduce exploration and development costs.
Though Rawl isn’t named in either report, this shift in Exxon’s approach to climate change occurred about the time he took the helm of Exxon. Under Rawl, Exxon apologized for the Valdez oil spill but refused to take responsibility until the legal settlement. And even in announcing the settlement, Rawl seemed more concerned about its impact on shareholders than on the Alaskan environment or fishermen who lost their livelihoods.
Rawl retired in 1993, so Exxon has had plenty of time following his tenure to become a leader on climate change. But apparently the corporate culture remains the same. Just last year, ExxonMobil Corp. Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson joined a lawsuit to stop potential hydraulic fracturing exploration for oil and gas near his home in North Texas. As the Wall Street Journal said, fracking “is a core part of Exxon’s business.”
It’s not fair to blame one company for climate change, and the United States cannot affect change all by itself because China is a major contributor to carbon emissions. (And mea culpa, I’m not yet willing to give up my gas-guzzling pickup truck.) But perhaps it is time for Mr. Tillerson to learn a lesson from Lawrence G. Rawl and return to the Exxon research as a guide to doing public good rather than a path to profit and gain. Global climate change simply isn’t a not-in-my-back-yard issue.
Lawrence G. Rawl cost Exxon my business. Rex Tillerson has a chance to win it back.