Big Oil's State of Denial

Who speaks for John D. Rockefeller?

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Who speaks for John D. Rockefeller?

Is it Rex Tillerson, the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, who presides over the forest of oaks that began in 1870 in Cleveland as Rockefeller's little acorn known as Standard Oil?

Or is it the descendants who speak for the grand old man (1839-1937), who invoke the family name in their efforts to make Exxon more positive about global warming and more aggressive in the pursuit of renewable energy sources?

Tillerson is in the Rockefeller mode, Mark I. He knows how to make money. For the first quarter, Tillerson turned in a profit of nearly $11 billion. It's the kind of figure that enrages people paying $4 a gallon and certainly galvanizes Democrats eager to impose windfall taxes—whereas the real criticism should be that not enough of the very necessary profit is invested to develop the viable fuels of the future. Most of the money Exxon makes goes to dividends and stock buybacks—returns have averaged an annualized 24 percent or more in the past five years—which is why at their Dallas meeting, 60 percent of the shareholders didn't vote for a change in the company's conduct. Shareholders are not by nature inclined to look beyond tomorrow's stock tables.

John D. was a lot more adventurous than that. As his economist great-granddaughter Neva Rockefeller Goodwin put it, "my great-grandfather saw the need to change from whale oil to petroleum-based fuels," and Exxon is not showing the "nimbleness and entrepreneurial imagination" to cope with the rapidly changing world. She is surely right. Supplies of oil just cannot keep pace with the guzzlers—and I don't just mean the SUVs and trucks getting an absurd 12 miles to the gallon, which is bad enough, but the fast-developing countries like India and China. About a year ago, my colleague Mortimer Zuckerman foresaw the trend, warning that the overwhelming mismatch between supply and demand "could produce oil prices well over $100 a barrel...with massive consequences for the world's economy."

Well, he's won the cigar with that forecast, and it is no use wishing he hadn't.

Held hostage. We are more or less captives to the big state-owned oil companies run by those friends of ours in Iran, Venezuela, and Russia. The West's big international companies are now minnows in the pond, controlling only 10 percent of world oil today. Quick guess: How much of the world's reserves do they control?

The Rockefellers who paid due respect to chairman Tillerson are closer to Rockefeller Mark II, the moral visionary, than to Mark I, the robber baron. No fewer than 73 of 78 members of the family have been trying for some years to get Exxon to think more strategically and make its own contribution toward the transition to an economy less dependent on carbon. They have the support of the patriarch David Rockefeller, retired chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. It must mean something when he, one of the most prudent of men, backs the family effort because of the need "to sharpen Exxon Mobil's focus on the environmental crisis facing all of us."

To which Tillerson's brusque predecessor, Lee Raymond, would have snorted, "What crisis?" Of all the energy companies, Exxon Mobil, as exemplified by Raymond, has been the most vehemently in denial about global warming. Tillerson seems inclined to change the company's course, but it's like watching a new captain trying to turn a giant oil tanker heading for the rocks, not quite sure he believes his instruments. Exxon has funded more than a score of groups masquerading under names that suggest science but actually spell antiglobal-warming propaganda: the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition; Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow; Heartland Institute, and so on. Tillerson says Exxon is simply joining the "debate" about global warming, which sounds fair enough, but why not insist that to qualify for Exxon dollars the groups must come clean with titles that don't mislead the public?

They all seek to suggest that the 2,000 concerned scientists in 100 countries are pseudos—the malevolent plotters of Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear. Crichton memorably said, "If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus." Tillerson tops that, saying a scientific consensus is an oxymoron. I suppose we should bring the same skepticism to the old consensus that the Earth is flat.