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EXCLUSIVE: Newly uncovered video shows Mobil CEO admitting climate change connection

Mobil Oil executive Lucio Noto discussed climate change impact of its fossil fuels in 1998 with concerned employees. Credit: Getty Images / Diana Ofosu

Exclusive new footage of an internal Mobil Oil meeting with employees, obtained by ThinkProgress, shows then chief executive, Lucio Noto, discussing the impact of Mobil’s product on climate change a full two decades ago. This admission occurred as the company worked externally to marginalize climate science and reject any responsibility for global warming and its impacts.

Noto’s statement took place in 1998 — one year prior to Mobil’s merger with Exxon — and raises critical questions about top executives’ awareness of the company’s overall carbon footprint. The answers may have significant implications for the multiple climate lawsuits currently facing ExxonMobil and other oil giants.

A central question in these lawsuits is who should be held responsible for rising global temperatures and the subsequent impacts of climate change. During a recent court meeting in California between attorneys for major oil companies — ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips — and two of the cities currently suing them, the main thrust behind Big Oil’s legal strategy quickly became clear: shift the blame.

“The IPCC does not say it’s the extraction and production of oil that is driving these emissions. It’s economic activity that creates the demand for energy, and that leads to emissions,” Chevron’s lawyer, Theodore Boutrous Jr., said of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific conclusions.

In other words, Boutrous is arguing that the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions are the result of people burning fossil fuels; the companies should not be held responsible for this portion because all they have done is extract the oil, coal, and gas.

But archival video footage of a Mobil Oil meeting seen by ThinkProgress indicates that 20 years ago, employees were raising concerns about the company’s responsibility for climate change. In response to staff complaints, Noto — the man who would become ExxonMobil’s second in command alongside Lee Raymond — appears to acknowledge the impact the company’s product has on rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Mobil Oil’s admission

The private corporate meeting shown in the video was led by Noto and takes place sometime in 1998 — shortly after the Kyoto Protocol on cutting greenhouse gas emissions was agreed upon and one year before the company’s merger with Exxon.

It’s unclear exactly where the meeting was held or what its main purpose may have been, but the video appears to be a small section of a broader speech by Noto to employees. (The full seven minute video of his speech related to climate change can be viewed at the end of this story.)

“Some of our employees are very upset at what they think is Mobil’s negative attitude on the Kyoto so-called climate agreement,” Noto tells staff.

While the company recognizes that “climate change associated with the buildup of greenhouse gases” could be a “big issue,” he says, “we are also not prepared to admit that the science is a closed fact, and that we should take draconian steps tomorrow to reduce CO2 gases.”

He goes on to explain how the company plans to address these rising emissions. At the top of the list was creating an “inventory” of the greenhouse gases for which the company is responsible.

Noto says that the greenhouse gas emissions from its facilities represent “probably only 5 percent of the issue in Mobil’s case. Our customers using our products probably account for 95 percent of those emissions. But with the 5 percent that we’re responsible for, we’re doing an inventory.”

These words represent an important admission by the company, legal experts argue.

The statement is an “implicit, and potentially explicit acknowledgement, that the biggest impact of an oil company on the climate comes from the use of its product,” Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, told ThinkProgress.

While Noto does shift most of the responsibility onto the customer, “in what he is saying is the acknowledgement that there are significant downstream climate impacts from the production of fossil fuels itself,” Muffett said.

“This is not Mobil Oil saying we’re responsible for 5 percent of all pollution,” he added. “What he’s saying is, of the hundred percent of global warming that our oil has contributed to, we’re only taking responsibility for 5 percent of that. And yet, he’s explicitly acknowledging that the other 95 percent is out there, and it’s a consequence of Mobil’s product.”

Pat Parenteau, a climate litigation expert and professor at Vermont Law School, agreed that Noto’s comment was a significant admission.

I think he’s acknowledging that as long as people keep burning gas they’re providing, the emissions are going to keep loading the atmosphere,” Parenteau said. “And he does try to say there’s still a lot of unanswered questions, [but] he doesn’t say what those are.”

Noto currently serves as a director at both Philip Morris International and Penske Automotive Group. ThinkProgress reached out to both in order to get in touch with Noto, however, his office did not respond to the requests for comment. ExxonMobil also did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ThinkProgress.

Who’s responsible for climate change?

ExxonMobil is currently under investigation by both the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general, after a series of reports published in 2015 by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed that the company was aware of the risks of burning fossil fuels as early as the 1970s, and yet continued to mislead investors.

The company is also named as a defendant in nine separate city and county lawsuits seeking to recoup damages related to climate change.

A central requirement for many of the cities and counties suing ExxonMobil and other oil companies, however, is that the plaintiffs will have to be able to prove in court that a particular nuisance — such as sea level rise caused by carbon emissions — can be traced back to the actions of an individual company.

This is why Chevron’s lawyer emphasized the impact of emissions coming predominantly from society’s use of fossil fuels in court last month.

Mobil’s Noto appears to be similarly deflecting responsibility back in 1998, said Sharon Eubanks, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who prosecuted and won the massive racketeering case against Big Tobacco.

“I think he was just assigning a number to it and he was pulling it out of his hat because he wanted to say, we accept some responsibility but really it’s the people who are using it, and it’s human-caused after all,” said Eubanks, who now works for the firm Bordas & Bordas. “Even if you say greenhouse gases are human-caused, we’re only responsible for 5 percent of it. We’re not responsible for everything we put out there; you’re the ones using it. That’s what I understood him to be saying.”

This question of responsibility has been a focus of scientists and researchers for several years. In order to link emissions to specific companies, the Carbon Majors Database was set up in 2013 by researcher Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute.

Heede’s peer-reviewed study featured in the database showed that nearly two thirds of all global emissions can be linked back to just 90 entities — oil and gas companies, coal producers, and cement manufacturers — responsible for extracting most of the fossil fuels burned since the industrial revolution. Among them, ExxonMobil was listed as the second highest contributor, responsible for 3.22 percent of global emissions, slightly less than Chevron (3.52 percent) and more than Saudi Aramco (3.17 percent).

Heede’s work is cited repeatedly in the preamble of many of lawsuits against ExxonMobil and other oil companies.

Both Heede and Eubanks note that it was around the 1990s when the idea of corporate responsibility starting gaining traction. Many companies likely started monitoring their emissions at that time, but only years later would they start releasing sustainability reports. (ExxonMobil’s reports today only measure emissions from its operations.)

“So that’s not unusual,” Heede said of the Mobil Oil video. “But it’s interesting to see that they had a larger understanding about their total corporate emissions inventory, their carbon footprint if you will.”

And as the video shows, Noto talks about supporting research into “how our customers can use our products more effectively and more economically and more efficiently.”

“We think we should do everything possible to make our products environmentally welcome to the 21st century,” he tells employees.

Heede said that oil and gas companies don’t want to admit responsibility for their customers’ carbon emissions because “that opens the door” to them being held liable for the entire impact of their product after it’s sold.

“They don’t want to be legally responsible in any sense,” he continued, “and they’re fighting that tooth and nail as we’re seeing.”

One piece of the puzzle

Noto’s speech isn’t a “silver bullet,” Muffett cautioned. Instead, experts believe it can be used as a wedge to open up questions about the degree to which the company was aware that its product — fossil fuels — was having an impact on global temperatures when used by its customers.

“The explicit acknowledgement by a CEO of a company that, yes, our products contribute CO2 emissions and, through that, potentially to global warming is very significant,” Muffett said. But, he added, it will become more significant as we gain a better understanding of how the fossil fuel industry internally calculates the emissions it believes it is responsible for versus its customers’ emissions.

The video is, as Muffett described, one piece of the larger puzzle.

Parenteau agreed. It’s part of a long history of oil companies’ awareness and acknowledgement of their role in driving climate change, he said. Understanding this history is central to the idea that specific companies can be held responsible for the impacts of climate change.

“They were in a position to do something about it, they didn’t do anything about it,” Parenteau said. “They deceived the public about it and now we live with the consequences.”

Statements such as Noto’s could “play big” in a trial, he added. “If you can get these facts in front of a jury in a state court of California, watch out.”

‘Two-sided attitude’

Noto’s speech takes on another significance when examined within the surrounding context of what the company was saying publicly about climate change at the time.

As has been well documented by journalists and researchers, the company funded climate science denial and misinformation for decades, despite its knowledge of the damaging impact of burning fossil fuels. Starting in 1998, when the two companies merged, up to 2016, ExxonMobil spent more than $33 million in donations to anti-climate groups, according to the company’s financial disclosures analyzed by DeSmogBlog.

Noto’s speech also coincided with rising public awareness and pressure on corporations regarding their contributions to global climate change. The year prior, for example, in 1997, BP’s chief executive Lord Browne made an historic public statement acknowledging the connection between human activity and rising global temperatures.

“There is now an effective consensus among the world’s leading scientists and serious and well-informed people outside the scientific community that there is a discernible human influence on the climate and a link between the concentration of carbon dioxide and the increase in temperature,” Browne said. “It would be unwise and potentially dangerous to ignore the mounting concern.”

He added, “If we are to take responsibility for the future of our planet, then it falls to us to begin to take precautionary action now.”

BP went on to launch a massive re-branding campaign, marketing itself as “Beyond Petroleum.” The meaning of this was less clear, however, as the company continued to prioritize fossil fuels.

Mobil, meanwhile, was taking a different approach.

A 1997 Mobil handbook, published in advance of the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, warns against taking drastic measures to curb emissions. It claims human activity is only responsible for 3-4 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and of this, “Mobil’s products and operations (oil and gas) represent a very small fraction of the total man-made carbon dioxide emissions.”

Taking an anti-Kyoto stance “may make some of our people feel uncomfortable,” Noto told employees during the 1998 meeting. “Too bad. That’s where we are. We will not take the BP position that says the science is closed. The science is not.”

Instead, in the face of mounting evidence — including from internal Exxon and Mobil scientists — showing the link between human activity and climate change, “Mobil is gonna have a two-sided attitude toward climate,” Noto told staff.

“If you feel uncomfortable about Mobil’s position, let us know,” he added. “We’d like to have your input.”

Noto concludes his discussion on climate change by saying, “I’m sorry for that interval, but I know a lot of people around the Mobil world have been very concerned about Mobil being too negative. Mobil is negative on Kyoto. It is a bad deal, bad negotiation, stupid.”

Three years later, under President George W. Bush, the U.S. did not sign on to the Kyoto Protocol — thanks in part to ExxonMobil’s lobbying.

“I commend Mr. Noto and Mobil for ‘doing what it can on a win-win basis to try to reduce its own and its customers’ emissions of greenhouse gases, as best it can,’” Heede said, quoting Noto’s own words. But, Heede added, “Trying won’t do where doing isn’t done, and Mobil didn’t accomplish much to reduce its own or customers’ emissions.”

The full video capturing Noto’s climate comments can be viewed below.