Drilled S1Ep1: The Bell Labs of Energy

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Bob Brulle, environmental sociology researcher at Brown University; Kert Davies, founder and director of Climate Investigations Center; Steve Milloy, who runs the climate denial website junk science; Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University; Ed Garvey, a former Exxon scientist; Morell Cohen, a former Exxon scientist; Richard Werthamer, a former Exxon engineering executive; and Marty Hoffert, a former Exxon consultant.

Bob Brulle: Information and influence campaigns. This is probably the most sophisticated approach to trying to modify policy outcomes that corporations and public relations companies engage in.

Amy Westervelt: That’s Bob Brulle, an environmental sociology researcher at Brown University. For the past few years Brulle has been looking into how the anti-climate science movement began. Who was involved, who worked with who. How much money they spent and how and why it was effective. This is a story that’s been told a few different times in a few different ways. But always with some key pieces missing. And let’s just say, we found the pieces.

Marty Hoffert: There is no question in the scientific community of people who publish in peer reviewed journals. Climate change is real.

Trump: So Obama is talking about all of this with the global warming and that is a lot of it’s a hoax it’s a hoax. I mean it’s a money making industry. OK. It’s a hoax.

Ed Garvey: Exxon passed a golden opportunity to lead.

Richard Werthamer: The mere fact that a climate modelling group was established and that the tanker project was funded in the late 70s to start of the 80s, 1981, indicates that upper management felt this is a great idea … funded it.

Steve Milloy: Simply making bold predictions and calling for solutions before you see whether your predictions pan out. That’s not science, that’s just alarmism.

Naomi Oreskes: Some of the predictions like sea level rise go all the way back to the 1950s. And what we’re seeing now is that all of these predictions are coming true.

Amy Westervelt: A lot of people today think of Russian bot armies and information wars and the well-oiled political propaganda machine operating in the US as a modern invention, brought about by data mining and social media. In fact, those are just new tools in an established trade. That trade was perfected in the 1980s and 1990s. On one long running, well orchestrated campaign that spanned industries. It manipulated not only the media but also various institutions and the general public.

It took America’s individualism and twisted it on itself. It planted the right people at the right parties to make sure progress could be stopped. I’m talking about patient zero in the US propaganda war: the creation of climate denial. I’m Amy WESTERVELT And this is Drilled.

Amy Westervelt: We don’t often talk about the 1970s and 1980s as a time of great hope and innocence. Nor do we tend to think of it as a time of great innovation. Especially if you weren’t alive at the time, or if you were still a kid like I was. In retrospect those decades are about excess and greed. Reagan. Your mom’s terrible hair and shoulder pads. A conservative backlash against the social progressivism of the 1960s. But that’s looking back through the lens of what happened next. In the moment itself, the late 70s and early 80s we’re still pretty optimistic. America was leading the world in science and engineering and most Americans believed we could innovate our way out of any problem.

Jimmy Carter: This dependence on foreign sources of oil is of great concern to all of us. In the year 2000 the solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy.

Amy Westervelt: That clip you heard just there that was Jimmy Carter in 1979. Six years previously in 1973 the oil embargo had hit, prompting massive investments in renewable energy. By the time Carter was installing a solar water heater on the White House, Americans were griping about gas lines and foreign oil. And U.S. oil companies were really trying to do something about it. Exxon alone was spending millions on advanced research.

Kert Davies: This is an internal Exxon memo from August 1981 and Mr. Glass is writing to Roger Cohen, the director of the center, and says “The only real problem I have is with the second clause of the last sentence in the first paragraph, which says quote changes of a magnitude well short of catastrophic quote unquote. I think that this statement may be too reassuring.

Amy Westervelt: Meet Kert Davies, an investigator who’s dug up dozens of documents that reveal what exactly the oil industry was up to during these years. He’s not the only one. That document he read there was dug up by journalists at Inside Climate News and others have been discovered by journalists at Columbia University.

That document goes on to say, “it is distinctly possible that the corporate planning department scenario will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population.” In another Exxon memo sent a few years before the one Kurt just read there, scientist James Black warned Exxon executives that in five to 10 years we could be facing some hard decisions about energy usage and climate change. He was talking about making those decisions in the early 80s. But by that time Exxon was starting to move in a different direction. At the time, when Black warned Exxon executives about climate change they took him seriously.

Ed Garvey: They really wanted to have a research center that would be valuable unto itself to the country and the world at large. It was going to be Exxon’s Bell Labs equivalent.

Marty Hoffert: And it was supposed to be something like Bell Labs, you know where the oil companies would try to do advanced research.

Morrel Cohen: Exxon was trying to become a research power in the energy industry the way the Bell Labs was for the communication industry.

Amy Westervelt: That was former Exxon scientist Ed Garvey, Exxon consultant Marty Hoffert, and former Exxon scientist Morell Cohen all talking about Exxon’s desire to build a Bell Labs-type research arm. Bell Labs, AT&T‘s research arm, invented and open sourced among various other things: the transistor, fiber optic cables, satellite communication, the cell phone, the laser, and the solar cell. Exxon wanted to be that. To The energy industry, in the 1970s.

Ed Garvey: The time when I was there it was really the heady days of research and development. At the time there was Exxon nuclear, there was Exxon solar and Exxon was developing batteries. I shared an office with a battery chemist. I don’t know what his exact contributions were but I know they weren’t trivial in terms of lithium battery development. There were other chemists in the area working on other types of batteries and improving battery cycle life and stuff like that for storage. Some scientists in the office space that I was in were doing solar panel development.

Amy Westervelt: Ed Garvey was a recent college grad when he started at Exxon and thrilled to get to work with the scientists there. The tech industry likes to think of itself as the country’s first innovators but scientists have always pushed toward the future. And in the 1970s and 1980s those scientists mostly worked for blue chip companies. Big companies like IBM, AT&T, Xerox and Exxon were centers of innovation at the time. These were the incubators of the future and they hired only the best and brightest.

Ed Garvey: It was a campus full of scientists. It was really really a heady time. I mean I was just fresh out of college and was with all these scientists talking about they’re researching this or researching that. It was a very exciting time.

Amy Westervelt: In fact the level of science being done at Exxon at the time was so high that Garvey’s boss Henry Shaw sent him back to school just a year after Garvey started.

Ed Garvey: I was working in the Exxon Research and Engineering Company and he said, “If you want to work in this division in this branch of the company you need a union card,” which is a PhD. He said if you don’t have a PhD, nobody is going to take you seriously here. So he said, but we can use this project toward your thesis. You’ve got to complete the coursework but this project could become your your dissertation.

Amy Westervelt: Exxon was so serious about its Bell Labs of energy dream, it even poached Bell Labs executive research director Ed David to run its research arm, the Exxon Research and Engineering Company, and at one point it planned to open a massive research campus in Clinton, New Jersey.

Ed Garvey: Exxon was developing this really big center for research, it was going to be like a Bell Labs campus it was a beautiful facility and everybody was deciding what they wanted in terms of their new laboratory. I was designing a laboratory for the tanker project.

Amy Westervelt: Garvey lucked out and got put on one of the company’s most exciting experiments – what they called the tanker project – at the time.

There was decades worth of data about CO2 emissions collected from the poles and from a top Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. That data had formed the basis of scientist Charles Keeling’s work in the 1960s in which he was able to show a steady curve upward as humans began to burn more and more fossil fuels. Scientists today refer to it as the Keeling curve. But the scientific community had questions around how CO2 was behaving elsewhere on the planet, particularly around the equator and in the oceans.

Ed Garvey: At the time, there had been lots of measurements at the poles. You know in the north Atlantic and the Antarctic, showing that you know water gets really cold and then it really can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. That’s where all the CO2 is being absorbed. But the other part of the equation is well okay, how much comes out of at the equator? So we did this with the Atlantic with the Esso Atlantic, measuring the CO2 released from the oceans.

Amy Westervelt: So Exxon was footing the bill for multiple scientists and for a wide range of cutting edge equipment.

Garvey and Shaw started out using equipment from the Lamont Doherty lab at Columbia University. Lamont Doherty was a leading edge Atmospheric Research Lab at the Exxon team worked closely with.

The machine was picking up too much noise from the ship. So Garvey and Shaw designed a gas chromatograph to do the job, modeled after a machine Ray Weiss had developed at Scripps Institute.

The device took about 10 readings per hour of the CO2 in both the air and the ocean as the tanker sailed the Atlantic and crossed the equator.

That was gonna be Exxon’s contribution was at least to understand the Atlantic and maybe we would go on to do other oceans, hopefully.

What’s very clear in speaking with Garvey and various other scientists, both those working at Exxon at the time and those conducting climate science elsewhere, is that any uncertainty that existed at the time was not over whether climate change was happening or whether humans were contributing to it.

Ed Garvey: The issue was not were we going to have a problem. The issue was simply how soon and how fast and how bad was it going to be. Not if. Nobody at Exxon when I was there was discussing that. It was just OK, how fast is it going to come? Can we do something about it? How bad is it going to be and when is it going to get here. But not if.

Amy Westervelt: That sentiment was echoed by Marty Hoffert, a longtime climate scientist who worked at NYU and consulted for Exxon from the late 70s until 2000.

Marty Hoffert: By this time we had a lot of data that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increasing even though the temperature of the earth hadn’t increased yet. We had various mathematical models very advanced computer models from which we could sort of figure out how the climate of the earth might change in some future time if we kept burning hydrocarbons for energy.

Amy Westervelt: It’s hard to imagine today but scientists and companies were not at odds on the issue of climate science in the 1970s, and neither were Republicans and Democrats.

Marty Hoffert: We knew that this had the potential to impact the bottom line of Exxon and that it could affect geopolitics. But that was just an abstraction. We were more focused on alternative sources of energy that would, for example, practically speaking allow a middle class American lifestyle, North American lifestyle, to continue without burning fossil fuel.

Amy Westervelt: If you were a child of the 90s it may be difficult to reconcile this 1970s version of Exxon with the company that would shrug off the Valdez oil spill just 10 years later. But the tanker project was just one of several ways that Exxon was working not only to understand climate change but also to transition to a new energy future in which it wanted to ensure it had a key role. Here’s Ed Garvey again.

Ed Garvey: They saw this as if we can get Columbia to work with us, if we can make contributionsm, real contributions to the science, then people can take us seriously when we talk about these are the problems and these are the limitations to suggestions for how you might limit fossil fuel consumption and what the implications would be. I think, I do think that at the time there was Exxon nuclear, there was Exxon coal, there was Exxon solar and at the time Exxon was trying to be an energy company not an oil company. So being taken seriously at the fossil fuel discussions was, to their mind, and I think it made sense to me at the time that this is how you would do it if you want to be seen as not just being an industry hack that’s saying, “We don’t want you to regulate our industry, period.” You need to be saying well yeah we recognize that this is a problem. This is how we think you should solve it. These are the things that are going on and so on and so forth. We’re making real contributions here.

Amy Westervelt: Hoffert, too, believed there would be a transition in the 80s.

Marty Hoffert: And so I think what happened was they started to realize that this can actually affect our business. I was very naive. I thought that if they realized that climate change was real they would start making big investments in renewable energy. It’s a huge company. They had a huge amount of profits. Why couldn’t they sink some of their profits into a new area which was going to be new business?

Amy Westervelt: Had they continued down that path, we’d be living in a very different world. Looking at a very different future. Next time, on Drilled:.

Morrel Cohen: It seems to me that the fundamental thing that underlies it is this change in what I call the political power within the corporation. They became much more conservative, much more concerned with the business, the traditional lines of business and automatically much more focused on preserving that.

Marty Hoffert: I think what happened is they started to realize that this can actually affect our business.

Ed Garvey: It went from a really heady time to really kind of despair where the company was shrinking, oil revenues were shrinking and the Bell Labs idea went out the window.

Amy Westervelt: Drilled is produced and distributed by Critical Frequency. This series was reported by me, Amy Westervelt. Our producer and composer is David Whited. Richard Wiles is our executive producer. Our story and concept development consultant is Rekha Murthy. Lucas Lysakowski designed our cover art. Katie Ross, Michaelanne Petrella, and Julia Ritchey provided additional editing. Drilled is supported In part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. You can find Drilled wherever you get your podcasts. Please remember to rate and review the Drilled podcast. It helps us find listeners. Thanks for listening.