100+ New Documents Highlight How Oil Industry Studied Climate and Delayed Solutions

May 19, 2016

Washington, DC – Today, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) launched a searchable database of more than 100 documents that brings to light new information on how the oil industry responded – and failed to respond – in the face of climate change.

“We now know that the oil industry was engaged in climate science by the 1950s and on notice of climate risks by the 1960s. The question arises: What did they do with that information?” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “Our research suggests the oil companies invested more in explaining away climate risks than in confronting them.”

Key Findings

  • Even as its understanding of climate risks increased, the oil industry funded research into: other pollutants that would offset warming; potential carbon sinks that would reduce the need to control emissions; and alternate theories of climate change that continue to be used by climate deniers.
  • Patent filings demonstrate that the industry had the technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as early as the 1970s. Exxon held patents for fuel cells and other clean transport technologies even as they opposed government research funding for electric cars. Exxon and other oil companies patented technologies to cut CO2 emissions from gas streams in half, but decided they were too expensive.
  • At the same time, oil companies invested in taller oil rigs that could withstand rising sea levels caused by climate change. And they patented offshore drilling rigs and ice-breaking tankers designed for oil-rich and rapidly changing Arctic environments.
  • Beyond simply understanding climate, Exxon and other oil companies sought ways to control it. Industry-promoted studies argued that petroleum products could help control the climate: burning oil on the ground to clear away fog or blow away smog; coating large areas of the earth in asphalt to change rainfall patterns; or using oil slicks on the sea surface or carbon dust sprayed from aircraft to shift or weaken hurricanes.

Critical Questions

  • During the 1960s, proponents of weather modification actively discussed the prospect of using carbon dust, ice clouds, or other methods to permanently melt the Arctic sea ice. In light of its Arctic interests and its investment in weather modification, did the oil industry’s research include such an agenda?
  • After opposing early government research funding for electric vehicles, what steps did the industry take to develop and commercialize its own patents?

Increasing linkages in research

Together with the new findings, CIEL is launching an interactive database that makes the documents more accessible to researchers, allowing users to quickly identify critical connections between companies, research institutes, and key individuals.

“This database puts documents into the hands of scholars, legal advocates, and the public,” said. “We expect this access to spur broader inquiry that will result in additional findings and connections.”

Today’s release is the second in a continuing series of releases based on active and ongoing research. CIEL plans to make additional documents them available to the public and other researchers in the weeks ahead.

To view our research and document excerpts visit: www.SmokeAndFumes.org


Media Contact:

Carroll Muffett, President: cmuffett@ciel.org, 202.742.5772
Amanda Kistler, Director of Communications: akistler@ciel.org, 202.742.5832

Smoke And Fumes Part 2: What They Did With What They Knew