Darren Woods, the new chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., mirrored his predecessor’s skeptical view on climate change in his first interview since taking over at the oil and gas giant.
Woods, who was promoted to CEO last month when Rex Tillerson stepped down to become secretary of state, acknowledged that unmitigated global warming poses risks that can’t be ignored. But he stopped short of recognizing emissions from burning fossil fuels as the chief cause.
“We understand there’s action needed to address the risk associated with that,” Woods said in a glowing 2,200-word profile published Monday morning by Forbes.
Under Tillerson, Exxon Mobil reversed decades of company policy by recognizing that the climate is indeed changing. In 2009, the Texas-based firm publicly backed putting a tax on carbon, a move that some saw as a distraction from congressional debate over a cap-and-trade bill. In 2015, the company supported the Paris climate agreement, the first global deal to cut greenhouse gases that included the U.S. and China, the world’s biggest polluters.
Yet as recently as 2016, Exxon Mobil was still paying millions to groups that either question fossil fuels’ role in climate change or deny the science outright. During the last two election cycles, the firm donated heavily to Republicans, who remain one of the only major political parties in the world to question climate science. Anti-climate hawks Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) were among those who benefited from Exxon Mobil’s largesse. Meanwhile, the company’s investments in renewable energy trail far behind those of industry rivals like Statoil, a Norwegian oil company that has emerged as a top player in the offshore wind sector.
That doesn’t appear likely to change under Woods. The 51-year-old is steeped in the culture of a company he was groomed for the past year to lead. Like his predecessor, he insists that shifting focus to zero-emission energy sources would strain energy resources and leave “millions” of people in poverty without access to affordable electricity or transportation.
“Whatever standard of living society decides is acceptable, there are people around the world who are below that standard,” Woods told Forbes, reflecting Exxon Mobil’s vision of itself as what Grist called “the savior of the world’s poor.” “What future do we hold for them?”
When asked for details about the company’s future policies, an Exxon Mobil spokesman referred The Huffington Post to a blog post Woods published last week.
The future of federal funding for climate research, renewable energy and environmental safeguards seems grim. The White House plans to announce deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency budget this week, potentially defanging the agency’s enforcement division. The cuts, part of an effort to divert federal spending to a $54 billion military buildup, could also affect funding for Department of Energy research into renewable technology. In the 2016 fiscal year, the agency spent over $2 billion on energy efficiency and clean energy, $1 billion on nuclear energy and just over $600 million on fossil fuels.
Such cuts would likely set back U.S. efforts to reduce greenhouse gases as part of its nonbinding commitment to the Paris accord, from which President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw. Even if all 180-plus countries that signed the agreement took the full steps to slash their emissions, global temperatures would still be projected to soar past 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels. (The agreement includes a clause that calls for negotiating stricter targets every five years.) Under those conditions, extreme weather, flooding and drought would create millions of refugees and lead to environmental catastrophe, an overwhelming majority of scientists say.
Judging by his own words, Woods doesn’t buy it.
“Fossil fuels today have a role in our society because they bring great benefit. Yes there’s a cost to it, and our understanding of that cost has grown over the years,” Woods said. “But based on what we know today, you can’t eliminate the cost and keep the benefit. The unspoken word is that the benefits have to go away.”
But it may be Exxon Mobil that can’t bear those costs. The company saw a 45 percent drop in revenue over the past five years as it placed big bets on oil sands, a costly and especially dirty fuel source, and struggled amid low oil prices.
“Investors right now are getting less cash from Exxon than they have historically, and are likely to get less cash in the future,” Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the nonprofit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told HuffPost in October. “This is going to be a much smaller company in the future, and the oil industry is going to be much smaller in the future.”