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Climate Hustle

CO2's Role in Global Warming Has Been on the Oil Industry's Radar Since the 1960s

Posted on 12 May 2016 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Inside Climate News

The oil industry's leading pollution-control consultants advised the American Petroleum Institute in 1968 that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels deserved as much concern as the smog and soot that had commanded attention for decades.

Carbon dioxide was "the only air pollutant which has been proven to be of global importance to man's environment on the basis of a long period of scientific investigation," two scientists from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) told the API.

This paperalong with scores of other publications, shows that the risks of climate change were being discussed in the inner circles of the oil industry earlier than previously documented. The records, unearthed from archives by a Washington, D.C. environmental law organization, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), reveal that the carbon dioxide question—an obscure corner of research for much of the 20th century—had been closely studied since the 1950s by some oil company researchers.

By the 1960s, the CO2 problem was gaining wider scientific recognition, especially as President Lyndon B. Johnson's science advisers and leading experts brought it to the attention of the White House in 1965.

"If CO2 levels continue to rise at present rates, it is likely that noticeable increases in temperature could occur," SRI scientists Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins wrote in their 1968 paper to API.

"Changes in temperature on the world-wide scale could cause major changes in the earth's atmosphere over the next several hundred years including change in the polar ice caps."

Ten years later, the world's leading oil company, Exxon, would launch an ambitious in-house research program into the emerging science of climate change, as detailed by InsideClimate News last year in an investigative series. Beginning in 1978, Exxon researchers hoped their work would identify the risks climate change posed to the company's business and earn it a seat at the table when policymakers moved to limit CO2 emissions, according to internal documents. By the late 1980s, the company and its allies would instead challenge the scientific basis for strong action on climate change.

In a new series of articles, ICN begins to examine how the industry confronted pollution concerns during the infancy of climate research in the mid-20th century. It is based on hundreds of public documents assembled by CIEL, along with others gathered by ICN.

The documents trace early academic research into rising carbon dioxide levels. They show how the oil industry monitored that published work, and help explain the beginnings of its own research. They also show how industry's reaction to mid-century regulation to curtail other forms of air pollution, such as smog, helped shape its approach toward the risks of carbon dioxide.

The documents reveal a deep and persistent interest by industry in the CO2issue, according to Carroll Muffett, a lawyer who is president of CIEL. If it is shown that oil companies knew fossil fuels posed dangers to the public, he said, the industry might become vulnerable to product liability complaints.

"From a products liability perspective, these documents raise potential claims that oil companies failed to warn consumers about a potentially serious risk linked to their products," he said.

Muffett's institute, an advocacy group that provides policy research and legal counsel on energy and environmental matters, is releasing its findings just as several state attorneys general have begun investigating how much oil companies knew about climate change and what they decided to do with their knowledge.

"Once the companies learned this science, they can't unlearn it," Muffett said. "Everything they did after this is done against the backdrop of the information they have from at least the 1950s onward.

"This to me is a critical point," he said. "When Exxon and other companies are funding climate change denial in later stages and focusing on uncertainties, how does what they are saying now compare with what they knew at a much earlier stage?"

Exxon has responded that its scientists at the time found that "many important questions about climate change remained unanswered and more research was needed." A spokesman for API did not respond to requests for comment.

Pollution Concerns Begin Rising

By the late 1940s, industrial pollution from the wartime surge and post-war boom began alarming the public. In particular, smog increasingly plagued Los Angeles, garnering the attention of the press and new pollution-control agencies. The sky turned a pale yellow, residents routinely became nauseous and their eyes burned, children were forced to play indoors, and acres of crops withered.

Members of the Highland Park Optimist Club in Northeast L.A. are seen here wearing smog-gas masks

Members of the Highland Park Optimist Club in Northeast L.A. wear smog-gas masks at a banquet, circa 1954. Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library

By the early 1950s, new science pointed to the oil industry as a major culprit, showing that nitrogen oxide emissions and uncombusted hydrocarbons from car tailpipes and refineries formed smog when exposed to sunlight.

As new agencies spawned new regulations, API and similar organizations set up a task force called the Smoke and Fumes Committee to monitor air pollution research and to commission projects by a handful of key consultants, including SRI. Originally affiliated with Stanford University, it was the industry's main pollution consultant, and eventually became an independent firm in 1970.

The work of the Smoke and Fumes Committee armed the industry for a prolonged struggle against what it considered overzealous regulation, which was based on what the oil companies and SRI called flawed science.

Meanwhile, a growing number of academics had turned their attention to rising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, tracing where the gas came from and the role that certain "sinks," such as the oceans and forests, played in absorbing it.

Roger Revelle, the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and his colleague Hans E. Suess published a landmark paper in 1957 about increasing CO2 emissions and the role of the oceans in absorbing some of it. The media, including The New York Times and Time magazine, sporadically wrote stories about increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.

Scripps scientist Charles David Keeling installed machines at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii to measure carbon dioxide levels on a regular basis.

The years between 1957, when Revelle first concluded that the oceans would not absorb all industrial CO2 emissions, and 1960, when Keeling accurately measured atmospheric concentrations and showed that they were definitely increasing, ushered in a new age of expanding climate research.

Already, some oil company scientists were conducting basic CO2 research, including several with Humble Oil, which eventually became part of Exxon.

By then, it was generally accepted that the burning of fossil fuels had released significant quantities of additional CO2 into the atmosphere, with some studies putting manmade emissions at 13 percent above natural levels since the Industrial Revolution began.

Humble's researchers studied the fingerprints of fossil fuel emissions in the wood of growing trees. Only a small fraction of the CO2 from fossil fuels showed up. Deciphering what was happening to the rest—mostly absorption into the oceans—was a major focus of research into the carbon cycle then.

As Humble's scientists explored issues like whether the varying climate in wet and dry conditions might influence the rate of carbon uptake by trees, their work intertwined with the rapidly evolving field of climate studies.

paper by independent scientists in 1958 determined that Revelle and Suess had probably underestimated how much CO2 would build up by the year 2000. The rise could be enough, they noted in passing, to have considerable implications for planetary warming.

A Presidential Spotlight

The report by Robinson and Robbins to API in 1968 was an unusually plainspoken assessment of the risks of CO2 emissions within the walls of industry. It is significant not as original research, but as confirmation that the industry recognized a consensus reaching the highest levels of government.

"It seems ironic," the report said, "that given this picture of the likely result of massive CO2 emissions so little concern is given to CO2 as an important air pollutant."

The SRI report emerged after the carbon dioxide problem had caught the attention of the White House.

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