As pressure on climate-unfriendly Big Fossil builds, so does the sense of disillusionment among the industry’s younger employees, for whom climate change is a real and present danger—for themselves and for their children.
Case in point, writes Inside Climate News, is the story of former oil and gas engineer Dar-Lon Chang, who quit his Houston-based job with ExxonMobil in 2019 after 16 years of trying to gently push the company toward any kind of sincere climate action.
Interested in alternative forms of energy since college, Chang believed that “science and technology would blaze a path toward a future without fossil fuels.” And, he told Inside Climate, he had faith that Exxon might well light the way.
But even before his experience at the company, such faith would have been misplaced. Shortly before Chang arrived, Exxon had “successfully lobbied the George W. Bush administration to highlight uncertainties about climate science and withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Protocol,” Inside Climate notes.
During his time at Exxon, Chang did try to nudge the oil major to think beyond its balance sheet and business-as-usual. Assigned in 2012 to design a new well drilling system—“like GPS for drillers,” he told Inside Climate—he tried, to no avail, to interest colleagues in its potential for other purpose, drilling wells for geothermal production or underground carbon storage.
“The only thing management was interested in was me applying this technology to the roles we had, and getting as much reduction in drilling costs as we could,” he said.
Chang’s breaking point came in 2018, when his young daughter came home from school and said her teacher had been forbidden to teach her class about climate change. “That kind of tipped me over the edge,” he said.
Putting in an order for a home in a net-zero community in Denver, Colorado, Chang and his wife decided to leave oil-rich—and significantly oil-dependent—Houston for good.
But before he left, Chang made one last attempt to get through to his bosses. In February 2019, at a meeting about Exxon’s plan to expand its production, Chang asked his colleagues a question: “Given that the IPCC report says we need to reduce our emissions in half over the next 11 years, by 2030, in order to have a reasonable change of avoiding irreversible damage, why are we increasing our production by 25%?”
The answer, he told Inside Climate, was a bald admission that Exxon wanted to make sure it remained king of the heap of whatever volume of fuels will still be permitted to be burned.
And little seems to have changed at Exxon. In a recent examination of the company’s 2021 Energy and Carbon Summary, Oil Change International found every metric in the so-called “climate plans” of Exxon (and Chevron) to be “grossly insufficient” in their ability to meet the demands of the 1.5°C Paris target.
Chang’s unease with his former industry’s lack of action is not uncommon. “We as an industry underestimate the intense pressure that oil and gas employees are under,” said Tisha Schuller, principal at Adamantine Energy and former head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. She told Inside Climate that more than half of millennials in the oil and gas industry want the industry to “take on an assertive, solution-oriented role.”
Citing another former Exxon employee, Inside Climate describes a “generational schism” in the company, with most employees aged 50 and under perceiving climate change to be a “serious issue.”
The overall picture—and Exxon’s own intransigence—pushed the colossal fossil into its first-ever financial loss last year, forcing it to borrow money and sell off assets to protect the dividends its shareholders expect it to deliver. Activist investors are demanding change, as well, with public pension funds in New York and California pressuring Exxon to get with the climate program. But the company may still prove to be a tougher nut to crack: “It remains unclear whether larger shareholders such as Vanguard and BlackRock will force the company’s hand,” Inside Climate notes.
Bad news for Exxon and its investors, activist or not, are new revelations from a former Exxon employee turned whistleblower named Franklin Bennett. DeSmog Blog reports that just a few days before the company announced a US$19.3-billion write-down, Bennett filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, arguing that Exxon has been “understating the financial damage to its assets…by as much as $56 billion, as of year-end 2019.”