What oil majors knew about climate change…….decades ago

Mazino Dickson


The campaign against the dangers of climate change has been gaining traction.

In earlier years, most activists had the herculean task of getting major global corporations to curb activities that lead to the emission of greenhouse gases across the planet.

In this case, the oil majors.

But recently leaked memos indicate that over three decades ago, major oil majors Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil knew about how oil and gas activities were driving global CO2 emissions, as well as the potential political and social responses to a warming world.

Shell findings

Jelmer Mommers, a Dutch climate and energy journalist with De Correspondent, discovered that as early as 1988, Shell’s Greenhouse Effect Working Group authored a report titled “The Greenhouse Effect,” which among other things:

  • Reviewed climate science literature (including acknowledgement of fossil fuels’ dominant role in driving greenhouse gas emissions).
  • Gave a detailed analysis of potential climate impacts, including rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and human migration.
  • Assessed the potential impacts to the fossil fuel sector itself, including legislation, changing public sentiment, and infrastructure vulnerabilities.

Fossil fuel danger

The report acknowledged the central role of fossil fuels – and oil in particular – in increasing CO2 emissions.

“Although CO2 is emitted to the atmosphere through several natural processes… the main cause of increasing CO2 concentrations is considered to be fossil fuel burning,” it said.


Climate Impact

The report stated that climate impacts could include “significant changes in sea level, ocean currents, precipitation patterns, regional temperature and weather.”

It also stated that changes would impact “the human environment, future living standards and food supplies, and could have major social, economic and political consequences.”

Business, political risks

It noted the risk of legislation and “changing demand for our products,” as well as new business opportunities in alternative fuels.

The report anticipated the “environmental problem forcing a policy response, the need for international government action, and the reputational risk of political anxiety.”

“It’s up to investors to assess if these and other risks were adequately disclosed in subsequent years,” it noted.

As a remedy, the Shell working group suggested an active engagement from the energy sector on these trends, while warning the Dutch corporation to take policy action early in a bid to avoid eventual environmental damage.

However, it became obvious that instead of acting on these research warnings, financial considerations were paramount.

What of Mobil?


Similarly, an Investigation by Inside Climate News (ICN) also unveiled a report by American oil giant Exxon Mobil that examined the dangers posed by human-caused global warming from the late-1970s to the late-1980s.

In its serialized investigation titled ‘Exxon: The road not taken,’ ICN insisted that the American company conducted cutting-edge climate research, and was warned about the impact of CO2 emissions via its oil and gas activities.

Exxon believed deep dive into climate research would protect Its business,” ICN noted.

Outfitting its biggest supertanker to measure the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide was a crown jewel in Exxon’s research program; Exxon’s business ambition collided with climate change under a distant sea.”

Throughout the 1980s, the company struggled to solve the carbon problem of one of the biggest gas fields in the world out of concern for climate impacts.”

But like Shell, business considerations swayed the Exxon to fiercely lobby for the sustenance of its operations.

Many environmental groups criticized the oil corporation for “stifling information” on the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment by creating doubts about the accuracy of climate change scientists by outrightly mocking “climate models as unreliable.”

New paradigm

Fortunately, the doubts expressed by these oil majors about climate change have been countered by the political class globally, as there is now a firm commitment by governments to not only curb the greenhouse gas emission menace, but also a paradigm shift from fossil fuels to other alternative energy sources like solar power, recycled waste, geothermal power, water and wind energy.

The annual climate change conference has given a political seal of approval that needs constant review and enforcement.

The emergence of electric-powered automobiles is a game-changer, as this new frontier would help scientists and engineers power machinery through ‘clean energy.’

Apparently, after years of aloofness and sometimes complete denial about the looming climate Armageddon, the oil majors are now showing a strong commitment towards clean energy.

The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) would no doubt help these players tailor their operations and activities with caution and strong regard for the environment.

Even non-oil companies like Facebook are working towards using renewable energy to power their operations.

It is hoped this new paradigm shift would help safeguard the environment from further destruction and damage.