Two-Year Long Investigation: What Exxon Knew About Climate Change | Columbia Journalism School
Two-Year Long Investigation:  What Exxon Knew About Climate Change

Two-Year Long Investigation: What Exxon Knew About Climate Change

ExxonMobil shareholders voted for Exxon to more clearly report how climate change impacts Exxon's business according to a report by The Guardian

Over the last two years, The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project at Columbia Journalism School led a series of investigations into what Exxon knew about the impact of climate change on their operations. The project led by Susanne Rust, Investigative Editor and Reporter, was published in partnership with the Los Angeles Times and The Guardian. 

"Our reporting showed the company has been aware of climate change risks since the 1980s. Company officials were concerned enough about these risks to incorporate engineering safeguards against rising seas and thawing permafrost into the design of pipelines, near-shore facilities and offshore rigs as far back as the 1990s. As the nation is now likely to back out of the Paris Climate Accord, the battleground will likely shift to shareholders of companies such as ExxonMobil, who are demanding accountability, transparency and action," said Susanne Rust.

The reporters examined hundreds of documents, consulted dozens of experts and scientific journals for a comprehensive and exhaustive report on Exxon's public position and it's internal planning on climate change issues.

Here's a look back at the series: 

October 9, 2015
What Exxon Knew About The Earth's Melting Arctic
by Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch and Susanne Rust

"The gulf between Exxon’s internal and external approach to climate change from the 1980s through the early 2000s was evident in a review of hundreds of internal documents, decades of peer-reviewed published material and dozens of interviews conducted by Columbia University’s Energy & Environmental Reporting Project and the Los Angeles Times.

Documents were obtained from the Imperial Oil collection at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum and the Exxon Mobil Historical Collection at the University of Texas at Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History. “We considered climate change in a number of operational and planning issues,” said Brian Flannery, who was Exxon’s in-house climate science advisor from 1980 to 2011. In a recent interview, he described the company’s internal effort to study the effects of global warming as a competitive necessity: “If you don’t do it, and your competitors do, you’re at a loss.”

October 23, 2015
How Exxon Went From Leader To Skeptic On Climate Change Research
by Katie Jennings, Dino Gandoni and Susanne rust

"In an internal draft memo from August 1988 titled “The Greenhouse Effect,” a company public affairs manager laid out what he called the “Exxon Position.” Toward the end of the document, after an analysis that noted scientific consensus on the role fossil fuels play in global warming, he wrote that the company should “Emphasize the uncertainty.

In 1989, Exxon scientists and managers began briefing employees at all levels of the company on the policy implications of climate change. LeVine made his presentation to the Exxon board as part of that effort, describing the known science and outlining the company’s position.

Other documents in the archives indicate Exxon scientists had been researching the topic for more than a decade — outfitting an oil tanker with carbon dioxide detectors and analyzers and building models to project how a doubling of the gas in the atmosphere would affect global temperatures."

December 31, 2016
Big Oil Braced For Global Warming While It Fought Regulations
by Amy Lieberman and Susanne Rust

"An examination of oil industry records and interviews with current and former executives shows that Exxon’s two-pronged strategy was widespread within the industry during the 1990s and early 2000s.

As many of the world’s major oil companies — including Exxon, Mobil and Shell — joined a multimillion-dollar industry effort to stave off new regulations to address climate change, they were quietly safeguarding billion-dollar infrastructure projects from rising sea levels, warming temperatures and increasing storm severity.

From the North Sea to the Canadian Arctic, the companies were raising the decks of offshore platforms, protecting pipelines from increasing coastal erosion, and designing helipads, pipelines and roads in a warming and buckling Arctic.

The industry contends that the difference between its public relations effort and its internal decision-making was not a contradiction, but a strategy to protect its business from misguided federal regulations while taking into account the possibility that the climate change predictions were valid."

April 6, 2017
The Role a Melting Glacier Played in Exxon's Biggest Disaster
by Dino Grandoni, Asaf Shalev, Michael Phillis, Susanne Rust

"In the decades following the accident, as Exxon publicly questioned the risks climate change posed both to society and its own operations and assets, a growing number of glaciologists identified climate as a factor in one of world’s largest and costliest environmental disasters.

While glaciers grow and retreat over decades and centuries, most of the planet’s glaciers are now shrinking at unprecedented rates, leading scientists to conclude with confidence that a changing climate is the culprit."


The Energy and Environmental Reporting Project is an intensive, full-time investigative reporting fellowship for four recent Columbia Journalism Graduates. Learn more about the school's post-graduate fellowships.