ExxonMobil: savvy company or a dinosaur with climate-killing instincts?

Photo of ExxonMobil sign

Interviewed on TV March 7, Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobiI, was asked how politics and the Green New Deal could affect his approach to running the company. His responses reveal plenty about the vulnerability of his company; more than speeches by industry executives typically deliver.

ExxonMobil is the largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the world. Its operations generate correspondingly large volumes of carbon dioxide, the cause of our global warming crisis. The company’s operations affect every living thing on the planet. That’s why the people who direct those operations must be watched closely. To make Mr. Woods interview responses easier to follow, they’ve been transcribed from spoken to written form and presented within quote marks below. The underlining is mine. Mr. Woods first tackles the part of the interviewer’s question that he’s most comfortable with, the political part:

“Energy is such an important part of people’s daily lives and their standard of living that as you think about these big ideas and as you translate them down to the smaller practical steps you take, people become very cognizant of what the impacts are for individuals, and as that starts to happen, people’s views change as to how far they can go and how quickly they can go.”

See how easily Mr. Woods brushes aside “these big ideas” i.e. the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is a political idea and Mr. Woods is no stranger to politics. However, the Green New Deal is based on the availability of actual machines that can be seen today producing electricity at lower cost than electricity from fossil fuels. That’s the crux of the matter. Unlike ideas, machines that people can see and touch are impossible to brush aside. Watch as Mr. Woods struggles with that reality in the following paragraph:

Our approach to that is to try to be part of the solution and engage with that. We have a long long history in this industry and a really good perspective on the global energy system, and we’re a company that’s grounded in science and technology, and if you look at the risk of climate change and what people and society are focused on in terms of lower emission energy systems, we’re going to need some technology breakthroughs. The conventional technology set doesn’t address the gaps that are out there today. We think we can play a role in that. In fact that’s where we’re investing some of our technology and our RD dollars to help fill some of those gaps.”

There you have it. As soon as Mr. Woods gets close to the crux of the matter, he backs away. Apparently unwilling to even mention the existence of green technologies, he implies that they don’t exist. Then he asks us to imagine gaps that need filling with “breakthrough technologies.” What Mr. Woods is saying is that the fossil fuel industry Is not equipped to deal with the climate problems it has created. Prompted by the interviewer, Mr. Woods now goes on to tell us how his company is working hard to invent the “lower emission energy systems” that the world needs.

Well, there are lots of different ideas out there. The way we look at it is that its got be be scaleable, it’s got to work at scale, and ultimately it’s got to be economic so that people can afford it, and it’s got to be reliableSo one of the things that we’ve been working on for many years is algae, biodiesel from algaeand the reason for that today is that we don’t have a good solution set for commercial transportation and emissions from commercial transportation, and algae and biodiesel could do that. Carbon capture and storage is another area that has potential but today the economics are very challenging, so finding more economical methods for capturing carbon is another exciting area. We’re looking at how you utilize the carbon you capture; what do you do with it? You can store it underground and you can also turn it into other products. So we’ve got a lot of research in terms of how you might use carbon and turn it into another product that society could use. So there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening in this space and we’re participating pretty broadly in that technology space. We’ve got relationships with eighty universities around the world. We’re working with the National Lab. We’re working with  governments around the world. So we’re trying to stay plugged in to make sure that we’re contributing as we can.

That’s it. The world is threatened by climactic Armageddon and the best ExxonMobil can come with by way of potential fixes are biodiesel and carbon capture. Biodiesel is not a global warming fix; nor is carbon capture. Carbon capture is an economic loser. A fossil fueled machine that’s already economically challenged will become even more uneconomical after another machine is attached to its smokey ass. An eight year old could tell them as much. So what’s going on? Is the idea’s primary purpose to calm the nerves of skittish investors — a line of bull to make the company’s prospects look sound? I suspect it is. ExxonMobil is not a savvy company.

As Mr. Woods correctly points out, energy technologies must work economically and reliably when scaled up to commercial size. That’s exactly what green technologies — photovoltaics, wind turbines, battery storage systems — are doing right now. That’s why Mr. Woods doesn’t mention them; they are an existential threat to the fossil fuel industry and are taken seriously by that industry.

The Green New Deal, however, is not taken seriously by its detractors. Why? Because it’s not a real thing, it’s an abstraction. That’s what makes it difficult to promote successfully. Advice to the Democrats: promote the work the green technologies are doing right now; win the next election; then introduce the Green New Deal.

The following YouTube video shows Mr. Wood’s TV interview of March 7, 2019.  The first two and a half minutes is the part of the video discussed in this post.