Exxon’s Environmental Baby Steps

Exxon Mobil would have to be included in any list of the large corporations that have done the most environmental damage over the decades.

Part of the reason would be specific events, such as the 1989 accident in which the company’s supertanker Valdez went aground off the coast of Alaska and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound, polluting more than 700 miles of shoreline. Although much of the guilt was laid to the captain of the vessel, who was intoxicated and away from his post at the time of the accident, Exxon was faulted for not acting quickly enough in dealing with the spill and for not adequately cooperating with state and federal officials.

Then there is the fact that Exxon was for many years one of the key corporate ringleaders in the climate denial effort. In 2015 Inside Climate News published an exhaustive expose on the company’s decades-long campaign, including the suppression of its own research showing the dangers of greenhouse gases and the associated financial risk.

Now, at long last, Exxon is changing its posture—a bit. The company has added a couple of directors with no previous ties to the fossil fuel industry, and its CEO is talking about the importance of carbon capture. In an interview with the New York Times, Darren Woods (photo) promised, as the newspaper put it, “that Exxon would try to set a goal for not emitting more greenhouse gases than it removed from the atmosphere, though he said it was still difficult to say when that might happen.”

It is frustrating to see Exxon take such tentative steps when the climate crisis is so dire and other companies such as General Motors with strong historic ties to fossil fuels are announcing much more ambitious initiatives.

Along with getting serious about climate change, Exxon needs to be a lot more diligent about basic environmental compliance. This has come home to me as I have been processing the data for a major expansion of Violation Tracker involving the addition of tens of thousands of cases from state government environmental agencies.

Exxon will end up high on the list of companies that have paid the most to states for violations of clean air, clean water, hazardous waste and other regulations. My preliminary calculation puts its total fines and settlements with state agencies at more than $540 million since 2000. That amount comes from more than 240 different cases in 22 states.

That total does not include a class action lawsuit brought in connection with the Exxon Valdez disaster. In 1994 a jury ordered the company to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to thousands of Alaskans but the company fought the award all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which slashed the damages to about $500 million.

I suppose it is progress that Exxon has abandoned its total refusal to acknowledge the issue of climate change, but it needs to do a lot more before it can be removed from the environmental rogues gallery.