Against Exxon

In a time when environmental issues are at the forefront of scientific and humanitarian concerns, we, as students of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, strongly object to the choice of the CEO of ExxonMobil as speaker for WPI Commencement 2011 and the way this choice was made.

  • We insist that the choice of the speaker take into consideration the ethical quality of the speaker’s social and environmental record.
  • We seek to ensure that in the future students will be included in the decision of their commencement speaker so that commencement day is truly about the graduates.
  • We encourage our peers to commit to having environmentally responsible careers.
  • We will educate the WPI community and the public about ExxonMobil’s misdeeds and their scientifically negligent response to global warming.
  • We will speak out about these injustices and share an alternate vision for a truly environmentally responsible and sustainable future.

Q. What is so terrible about ExxonMobil’s environmental record?

ExxonMobil was responsible for the Valdez oil spill which devastated the livelihoods of the people of the Prince William Sound, 22 years ago. We have a student from Alaska here at WPI whose life was turned upside down by the environmental catastrophe. Just now, after 22 years of foot-dragging by Exxon, they have begun to receive compensations, with amounts (in our student’s words) that are laughably inappropriate. We stand with our fellow WPI students against Exxon.

In the past decade or two Exxon’s environmental record has improved somewhat, but it remains far from excusable. The cleanest toilet in a bar is still filthy. For instance, in 2009 Exxon was fined $105 million in damages for leaking methyl tertiary butyl ether (MBTE) into New York’s drinking water.

Q. How has Rex Tillerson’s direction of ExxonMobil’s been contrary to WPI’s values?

WPI is a science and technology school. We are proud of our heritage and of our expertise. The Exxon administration has repeatedly sought to undercut the prestige, power and respect of our disciplines in American society. The MBTE leak in New York occurred when the administrators at Exxon decided to ignore the warnings of their engineers and scientists. Since 1998, Exxon has spent upwards of $16 million on a disinformation campaign against global warming whose primary message was that scientists cannot be trusted. We refuse to honor businesspeople who disrespect our discipline in order to preserve an unsustainable and dangerous status quo.

Q. What did Exxon’s disinformation campaign look like?

A memo was leaked from a lobbying firm hired by Exxon to arrange their opposition to the Kyoto protocol. It stated as one goal for its $600,000 budget that year to

organize through grassroots organizations a series of campus debates on climate science in 10 most important states. (Page 45 of the UCS Report.)

Naturally, a grassroots organization with $600,000 of corporate funding is an oxymoron.

We wish for WPI to maintain its intellectual independence, free of false debates injected by Corporations in the name of their self-interest. Exxon’s disinformation efforts are entirely incompatible with any conception of the role of universities in our society as beacons of truth, including WPI’s.

Exxon’s 2008 Corporate Citizenship Report apologized for the disinformation and promised to withdraw funding. The circuitous language read:

In 2008 we will discontinue contributions to several public policy interest groups whose position on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.

While we celebrate the intent, we remain skeptical. Exxon made a similar promise in 2005 without effect, and the latest investigations indicates that Exxon continues to fund many firms that produce disinformation on global warming. Just as for the aftermath of the Valdez catastrophe, we will hold Exxon accountable for its intellectual waste, and we call for Exxon to repair the damage it has caused to our discipline’s reputation.

Q. Rex Tillerson is an important person, shouldn’t he be given a forum to speak?

In light of ExxonMobil’s disinformation campaign against the scientific community supporting global warming, WPI can have no certainty that by inviting Tillerson  speak it isn’t supporting the latest round of Exxon’s plan to delay action on climate change.

This is not a matter of intellectual disagreement; there is a strong documentary record of Exxon’s attempts to undermine the public debate (by cynically spreading misinformation) rather than participate in it. Not only does WPI have no obligation to give a forum to a company that has exploited academia’s openness—WPI is negligent to do so.

Choosing a speaker whose company has consistently put profits ahead of integrity and innovation is typical of institutions willing to do little more than status quo. Is this the kind of leader we want WPI to be? No, certainly we can do better.

Q. How can Rex Tillerson be blamed, when he was merely pursuing his stockholders’ interest?

In 2008 Tillerson faced a stockholder revolt over his backward position on global warming. He overruled a stockholder vote on their wish to steer the company towards alternative fuels. The stockholders had severe words for Tillerson:

If [the future’s] energy use is based on continued reliance on hydrocarbons, as ExxonMobil predicts, we will see an unrelenting increase in global CO2 emissions with devastating consequences, especially for those who are poor in resources and influence, whether they live in developed or developing countries.

If the stockholders had control of Exxon, we would see the company invest in renewables with an urgency that would relegate its current $600 million research program in algae fuel to a footnote.

Q. Exxon is investing in algae fuels. That’s a good thing, right?

Yes, but it won’t be enough. ExxonMobil’s own corporate governance website documents the contradiction of their current policies. On one hand ExxonMobil is well aware of the scientific consensus on global warming. Their section on global warming of their website discusses the key chart of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007), showing the path ahead if we insist on burning oil, coal, and gas: a warming of between 1°C to 5°C (2°F to 9°F) by 2100. (Note: the IPCC 2007 report is out of date.  The lower bound of 1°C has already been reached, and the latest upper bound estimates range up to 10°C (18°F.))

ExxonMobil posts the key chart of the 4th ICPP report

[click on the chart to see it on Exxon’s website]

On the other hand, their corporate forecast says:

ExxonMobil expects global energy demand in 2030 to be about 35 percent higher than in 2005. Demand growth would be far higher – with 2030 energy consumption nearly double 2005 levels – were it not for expected improvements in energy efficiency [brought about by global warming mitigation policies].

We will need to continue to expand all available energy sources to meet this substantial increase in demand. These sources must include oil, natural gas and coal, which by 2030 will continue to meet about 80 percent of the world’s energy demand.

If ExxonMobil’s prediction are realized—if 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuel in 2030—we commit ourselves to a vastly transformed climate. The extreme temperatures we will reach are unprecedented in the history that has shaped our current biosphere, and little is known on how it will react. At the moment we have no scientific confirmation whether these temperatures are compatible with the continued survival of humanity.

Q.  Are you planning to disrupt the graduation ceremony?

No. We recognize that graduation is a very special event for all students, ourselves included. We, as proud members of the Class of 2011, wish to participate in commencement as fully as possible. However, it would be unconscionable for us to sit passively during a commencement which is so thoroughly against our values. ExxonMobil has directly harmed the families’ of some students at WPI; it has funded disinformation against our disciplines; it has derailed climate change policies that are necessary to ensure a safe and stable world for us, our children, and our grand-children. What to do? The philosophy of non-violence suggests a solution to this conundrum: we will withdraw our consent.

Our intent is not to disrupt the ceremony, but rather show integrity to our values.

WPI has agreed to let students of conscience enter the ceremony after Tillerson has spoken.  They will then participate in commencement as usual. After the ceremony, at 3PM, Richard Heinberg from the Post Carbon Institute will be speaking at the same venue (WPI Quad).

We hope you will join us.

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WPI Against Exxon by Guillaume Marceau is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.