Is it possible that America's top bankers have a synapse or two that isn't firing right?
Perhaps as infants they were dropped on their heads. In their youth some may have consumed a few too many mind-altering substances.
Or maybe they were exposed to dangerously high levels of environmental toxins as kids growing up between the Second World War and the early 1980s, when Americans were exposed to a toxic soup containing everything from lead and mercury to pesticides such as DDT.
A selection of David Ewing Duncan articles on the intersection of business and science.
Before you dismiss this ne
Some Exxon Mobil shareholders worry that time is running out-an astounding notion given the company's outsize profits. Members of the Rockefeller family-descendants of founder John D. Rockefeller-say they think that the Tillerson way is a case of corporate tunnel vision that is as reckless as it is skewed.
John D. Rockefeller's great-granddaughter Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a development economist at Tufts University, confronted Tillerson and the board at the company's most recent annual meeting, in Dallas. Goodwin, 64, described what she sees as a potentially cataclysmic flaw in two of Exxon Mobil's fundamental business assumptions. The company's management, she said, assumes that developing economies will continue to grow rapidly and that this growth will drive increasing demand for fossil-fuel energy sources, ignoring the fact that such changes will cause climate shifts that will hit developing countries particularly hard. "These assumptions cancel one another out," Goodwin argued, as Tillerson and his board listened patiently.
Goodwin's resolution, which called on the company to investigate these "internal contradictions" and to take a leadership role in developing sustainable energy, garnered votes from approximately 10 percent of those Exxon Mobil shareholders who voted. Another Goodwin-supported proposal, to replace Tillerson with an independent, nonexecutive chairman, garnered 40 percent. Undeterred, the company's opponents are still circling.
In his campaign for the presidency, Obama mentioned Big Oil in general and Exxon Mobil in particular dozens of times, and not a single reference was friendly. His choice for energy secretary, Steven Chu, is a Nobel Prize winner on the vanguard of alternative-energy research.
During the election campaign, Obama openly mocked Tillerson's company. "It's a game where lobbyists write check after check, and Exxon turns record profits, while you pay the price at the pump and our planet is put at risk," the new president railed during the primaries. He also inveighed against windfall oil profits, singling out Exxon Mobil several times as a corporate predator. "They are not going to give up those profits easily," said candidate Obama.
In addition to Chu, Obama has packed his administration with other hawks on climate change, including Harvard University physicist John Holdren, the new White House science adviser, who has lambasted Exxon Mobil for funding climate-change skeptics.
David Sandalow of the Brookings Institution, formerly part of Obama's transition team for energy policy, published a book last year called Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States' Oil Addiction, in which he argued for a massive federal push to put millions of electric-powered cars on U.S. roads. Obama took up that cause in February's stimulus bill, which offers tax breaks for buyers of flexible-fueled and hybrid-electric cars and commits billions of dollars for heavy-duty-battery research and development. "The future of the auto industry is electrification," says Sandalow. "The only question is how quickly."
Every investment at Exxon Mobil, whether it's $100,000 or $100 million, must pass a rigid review. This rigor gives Exxon Mobil its edge over rivals, one company executive says. Tillerson's predecessor, the legendary Lee Raymond, who was chairman and CEO from 1993 through 2005, would openly mock other oil companies for writing off billions of dollars of shareholder capital from bad investments.
Brilliant but famously headstrong, Raymond set the tone for Exxon Mobil's attitude toward climate change and alternative energy, and its all-encompassing embrace of fossil fuels. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, he ran Exxon's nuclear and renewable-energy units-relatively small enterprises within the company's universe-and then dumped the businesses when oil prices fell again. For years, the last remnant of Exxon's renewable-energy portfolio was an early-generation solar unit on the roof of its Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot Theme Park in Walt Disney World.
The energy giant is building an oil rig that can reach depths never before tapped.
Housed in a large hexagonal building near Epcot's signature golf-ball-shaped Spaceship Earth attraction, the Universe of Energy showed a short film and animatronic scenes celebrating energy in all its beneficence, with nary a smokestack or Middle Eastern army in sight. "En-er-gy, you make the world go round" went the theme song's refrain. Visitors traveled through the exhibit's auditoriums and dinosaur displays in sections of theater seating that served as small vehicles for the journey; at the end, the sections would reassemble to form a complete theater. The wizardry was hugely popular in its time, even if the solar panels on the roof, which purportedly helped power the ride, were a prop. "They were mostly for show," says a former Exxon Mobil official familiar with the project. "They provided very little juice." (Disney maintains that the panels provided as much power as its promotional materials claimed.)
Veterans of other oil companies say they've actually endured scorn from senior Exxon Mobil executives over the years for talking up renewables. In 2007, when ConocoPhillips helped found the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a business lobby supporting controls on greenhouse-gas emissions, Exxon Mobil executives "were furious at us," says one senior ConocoPhillips official. BP, Shell, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips have all diversified into renewables to varying degrees. BP is one of the world's largest manufacturers of photovoltaic cells. Shell is a major wind-power producer. Chevron has substantial geothermal operations, and ConocoPhillips is investing heavily in biofuels, including diesel made from animal waste. That leaves Exxon Mobil as the last significant holdout for a future staked almost entirely on oil and gas.
The problem for the company and the industry it leads is that no one knows where the new hydrocarbons will come from. The most accessible petroleum deposits-in places like Alaska, Texas, Mexico, and the North Sea-are in mature fields that are in steady decline. New discoveries in these regions are possible, but they generally lie deeper or in more remote areas and will require expensive drilling technology to become productive. And, as the stalemate in Alaska shows, even knowing that the energy is available doesn't mean the pipeline will be built to get it to market. (See "Pipe Dreams") The upshot: Exxon Mobil's production volume is dwindling. Its output of oil and natural gas plummeted 6 percent in 2008, with declines reported in the first three quarters. The drop reflected production dips at several North American fields, partly as a result of hurricanes, as well as Venezuela's expropriation of certain Exxon Mobil operations. The company was also hit by shrinking draws from joint-production projects around the world. Under the terms of such contracts, which account for about 20 percent of Exxon Mobil's production, higher oil prices translated into fewer barrels allocated to Exxon Mobil. That's because the contracts are structured so that Exxon Mobil recoups its initial investment rapidly and then receives profits more gradually. In other words, ironic as it seems, high oil prices actually eroded Exxon Mobil's medium- to long-term value, analysts say. Hence the company's sunken stock price, even before the market crash, despite the record profit.
Yet Tillerson keeps upping the ante on oil and gas. Last year, he boosted Exxon Mobil's exploration and development budget by 25 percent, to $125 billion over the next five years. The company's sole public commitment to alternative-energy research is a 10-year, $100 million grant to Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project. And it turns out that only 40 percent of that money will fund renewable-energy work. (Nearly 30 percent of the funds are going into tinkering with fossil fuels.) Tillerson is spending considerably more money trying to rebrand Exxon Mobil as a technology company, albeit one focused on better ways to pull oil and gas out of the ground.
Though several TV and print ads feature what the company's website calls its "revolutionary" separator "breakthrough" for hybrid- and electric-car batteries, these emphasize the company's technological advancements, not any commitment to an alternative-energy future.
The image dovetails with one of senior management's periodic big-think reviews. A few years ago, top executives made a thorough review of Exxon's energy outlook from 1975. Company forecasters had nailed the demand side in their 30-year forecast; energy consumption, as they predicted, closely tracked global economic growth. But they had wildly overestimated the speed at which prices would rise. The reason: "We missed the growth of technology," says an executive who participated in the review. "We missed how rigs would go from 50 feet of water to 5,000 feet"-enabling drillers to capture more oil at lower depths-"how horizontal drilling would require fewer offshore platforms, and how the cost of finding oil would fall."
Roughly two-thirds of Exxon Mobil's reserves are made up of conventional oil, gas, and liquid natural-gas projects. However, Exxon Mobil's future resource base-what experts call the opportunity pipeline-is much more tenuous. These undeveloped deposits amount to the equivalent of about 50 billion barrels. Exxon Mobil owns the rights to these but doesn't plan to exploit them for another five to 10 years. Conventional oil and natural-gas fields make up a mere quarter of that total.
The bulk of the company's future barrels lie in hard-to-access fields deep beneath seawater, in the Arctic, and in nearly impenetrable geological formations in Colorado and elsewhere, requiring extensive drilling and massive infusions of chemicals and freshwater to flush them out. These reserves are truly the bottom of the barrel in terms of the world's hydrocarbon supplies, viable only in a regime of high energy prices and lax environmental restraints. Much of Exxon Mobil's untapped natural gas, for example, is the so-called sour type, laden with toxic chemicals that are expensive to remove. And by far its single-biggest undeveloped deposit is the Canadian tar sands, the hydrocarbon muck found beneath northern Alberta's vast boreal forest. Exxon Mobil and others are making plans to mine the region's bitumen sand on an immense scale-with grim ramifications for the environment, near and far. Last year, were it not for newly reported reserves of 1.1 billion oil-equivalent barrels of Canadian bitumen, Exxon Mobil's proved reserves would have significantly declined.
The energy giant is building an oil rig that can reach depths never before tapped.
Separating the bitumen oil from the sand and clay that surrounds it requires a huge influx of energy in the form of heat and steam. Canada is burning vast amounts of natural gas for the job. The result: Every barrel of crude from tar sands releases three to five times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a barrel of oil produced conventionally. The process also sucks up enormous quantities of freshwater and spews it out as tailings waste into giant lake beds of toxic sludge.
"We're exchanging a clean-burning fuel"-natural gas-"for a dirty fuel, and we're using freshwater to do it," says Philip Weiss, an energy analyst with Argus Research Co. In a statement, Exxon Mobil disputed that the tar sands projects are environmentally damaging. "The oil-sands industry currently accounts for only 4 percent of Canada's total emissions," according to the company.
Inside Exxon Mobil, senior management sees its own "corporate social responsibility," as Tillerson put it at last year's annual meeting: satisfying the world's insatiable appetite for oil and natural gas. Tillerson also frames this mission in moral terms: What right do Western environmentalists have to push basic amenities like electricity and car travel beyond the reach of millions of people just emerging from poverty in the developing world? "Who are we to say, 'We've got ours; you can't have yours'?" says a recently retired Exxon Mobil executive.
Since taking over for Lee Raymond in 2006, Tillerson has softened his predecessor's combative stance on global warming, but he certainly hasn't replaced it. The company acknowledges that temperatures and greenhouse-gas levels are both rising, but Tillerson has said he isn't convinced that there's a causal link between the two. Still, recognizing the risks, Exxon Mobil now says it's willing to entertain greenhouse-gas restrictions, as long as these efforts are on an equal footing with "other important world priorities, such as economic development, poverty eradication, and public health." Tillerson has recently expressed a preference for a carbon tax over a cap-and-trade system because he says a straight tax would be more efficient.
Such statements only further infuriate the company's critics, who say Exxon Mobil's concerns at this juncture amount to posturing. Although an overwhelming consensus may exist among scientists that global warming is real, Exxon Mobil can point to the lack of universal agreement about the prudence of spending hundreds of billions of dollars over several decades on carbon-reduction programs to reverse the trend. The noted physicist Freeman Dyson, for example, who has no quarrel with the warming data, has suggested that it might be a more humane public policy to spend some of that money on addressing immediate problems-eliminating poverty or infectious diseases, for example-while searching for cheaper technological fixes to greenhouse-gas emissions.
Still, after intense pressure from environmental groups and some members of Congress, Exxon Mobil has stopped funding certain high-profile global-warming skeptics such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute. But in the most recently available financial data, the company was still plowing millions of dollars into other conservative groups that stoke doubts about climate change. "Exxon is a purveyor of carbon. We're not 'beyond petroleum,'?" says one of the company's former lobbyists in Washington. And though the curmudgeon Raymond is gone, the operative who actually built Exxon Mobil's global-warming-denial machine, Ken Cohen, still heads the company's large department of public affairs.
Cohen, an Exxon lawyer who emerged as a close confidant of Raymond's after Exxon purchased Mobil in 1999, followed the tobacco industry's playbook. According to Greenpeace, Exxon Mobil gave nearly $23 million between 1998 and 2006 to a network of conservative nonprofit groups that propagated doubts about global warming, even as climate scientists were reaching consensus on the clear and present dangers. Several of the same groups and spokespeople on Exxon Mobil's payroll had previously taken tobacco-industry money to downplay the health dangers associated with cigarette smoke. Cohen funded the drive-regarded as "black ops" by some Exxon Mobil insiders-with special earmarks and budget lines approved from above. The project was a closely held secret within the company. "This was neither legitimate science nor legitimate charity," says one source familiar with the process.
"It was propaganda."
More recently, Exxon Mobil has found subtler ways to mold minds on climate change. Between 2004 and 2007, it donated $2.5 million to the American Geological Institute for Faces of Earth, a four-hour TV series on the geologic history of the planet. Though the last part of the series nominally addresses "how humans are shaping Earth," the 43-minute program skirts the core issues of contemporary climate change. Instead, the documentary, which aired on the Science Channel in 2007 and is being sold to schools, casts man-made warming as part of an 8,000-year process dating back to the advent of the plow. It features several reputable scientists hinting at the imminent dangers of today's heavy fossil-fuel use but repeatedly cuts away to images of natural forces such as erupting volcanoes, while the narrator's voice redirects the discussion to geologic time scales. "There's a lot of talk today about Earth's changing climate in surprising and alarming tones," the narrator says, in the film's only direct reference to global warming. "The geologic record tells us that the climate has always cycled between cold and warm. These conditions are natural to the planet. But the geologic record also reveals that we should be in a cooling cycle. But we're not."
Exxon Mobil seems to be getting defter at selecting whom to fund. In one of its largest individual research grants in recent years, the company's foundation awarded $250,000 to a pair of reputable researchers at the University of British Columbia for a project called Fuel Choices and Human Welfare. The money is being used to study the implications of fuel choices for a range of environmental and health outcomes. Replacing gasoline with diesel fuel, for example, reduces carbon-dioxide emissions but can increase air pollution.
"Anybody that tells you they've got this figured out is not being truthful with you," Tillerson said at the 2008 annual meeting. "There are too many complexities around climate science for anybody to fully understand all of the causes and effects and consequences of what you may choose to do to attempt to affect that."
Obama's energy agenda calls for eliminating oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela-or 27 percent of all U.S. oil imports-by 2018. Such a precipitous drop could devastate Exxon Mobil, which gets nearly 40 percent of its imported crude from the Persian Gulf region, making it the largest importer of Middle Eastern oil to the U.S. The company also sees U.S. energy consumption declining, but much more slowly than Obama wants. Obama also vows to implement an economywide cap-and-trade program to reduce America's greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. To seriously reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, carbon prices may need to be set high enough to push effective oil prices above $80 a barrel, which could give alternative fuel sources a big leg up, says Daniel Kammen, a University of California at Berkeley physicist who has advised Obama on energy issues.
"You can't defeat the incumbent without fundamentally changing the rules of the game," Kammen says.
seeing exxon mobil at this moment, with its reserves dwindling and its management under assault by shareholders, it's hard not to compare it to Wall Street, as least with regard to the public mood. Investment banks and old-line oil companies seem equally popular with the current occupant of the White House.
Exxon Mobil "allowed itself to be seen as a villain on climate change, as a company that's more interested in throwing up roadblocks than finding solutions," says Elizabeth McGeveran of F&C Asset Management PLC, a London-based fund manager. "For any company in this globalizing world of ours, that type of reputation is a mistake."
The American International Group's bonuses-$165 million paid to its executives after a $170 billion taxpayer bailout-epitomize this mental disconnect. Even under blistering congressional questioning, AIG chief executive Edward M. Liddy insisted that the company needed its smartest people to avoid an even more catastrophic failure.
Smart people at AIG would be useful during this fiasco, though one has to wonder how bright these people really are, some of them the very people who created the piles of debt that got us into the mess.
Consider the possibility that brain damage has contributed to some of the poor decisions made by the smartest people of previous generations. Yet it's hard to ignore that the group now running our country was born at the height of what was possibly the most polluted era in our country's history.
These were the final, filthy years before Congress passed the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act in the early 1970s, laws that did more to clean up the environment than any actions before or since.
I'm a member of this group myself-born in 1958-which might give you pause about my own mental capacities as I write this.
Yet my brain is still sharp enough to recall that in my childhood, the air and water was choked with effluents. Where I lived in eastern Kansas, just outside of Kansas City, a nearby corridor of factories made the air almost unbreathable in that part of the city. And the Kansas River, which flowed a mile from my home, was so toxic that when an older brother of a friend fell in, he was rushed to the emergency room with second degree chemical burns.
A blood test I took revealed that 37 years after DDT was banned in the U.S., I retain inside me levels nearly double the national average. Other chemicals of that era, such as PCBs and other banned pesticides also come up in higher levels than the national mean as measured by the Centers for Disease Control.
This and other tests appear in my recently released book, Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World (Wiley).
It's not known if these minute levels of toxins have done me (and others) any harm, though there are chemicals such as lead and mercury-which tend to accumulate in the brain-that many experts now say can be dangerous at almost any level in the developing brains of fetuses and small children.
"No amount of mercury is really safe," says pediatrician and mercury expert Leo Trasande of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Children have suffered losses in IQ at the official safety threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency. "Almost any level of mercury can shave off a few points on the IQ of an infant," Trasande said.
Then again, the explanation may have nothing to do with effluents in our brains. As a colleague of mine said when she heard my theory: "I think that the financial meltdown had to do more with greed than mercury."
Yet even my generation's attempts to be spectacularly greedy have been botched. Look at the otherwise successful people who invested in Bernard Madoff's schemes promising steady and impossibly high returns, or the tens of thousands of MBAs who have gone from Masters of the Universe to unemployed.
Their bosses don't seem to be all that bright either if they fail to comprehend that people are close to gathering pitchforks and torches and storming the financial barons' castles, like the townsfolk who went after Baron von Frankenstein when they had enough of his monstrous machinations.
The only way these anti-sages of finance may get away with their greed this time is if the rest of us also had our brains damaged, too, and we let them get away with wasting even more of our money.
David Ewing Duncan is a frequent contributor to Cond� Nast Portfolio and the author of Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World (Wiley).
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