Professionalism/Lenny Bernstein and Exxon Mobil

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A 2014 email authored by Lenny Bernstein, former chemical engineer and in-house climate expert at Exxon, revealed that Exxon was aware of potential anthropogenic climate change seven years before the company's competitors. Exxon has been heavily criticized for failing to adequately disclose research findings and continuing to spearhead decades of emission cap opposition lobbying efforts, despite mounting scientific evidence supporting climate change. Exxon's alleged protection of corporate interest at the expense of the public indicates potential systematic professional failure from the individual to corporate levels.

Lenny Bernstein[edit]

Email and Controversy[edit]

On October 8, 2014, Lenny Bernstein replied to an email from Alyssa Bernstein [no relation], Director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University. She had requested ideas for a Global Ethics Day, specifically referencing that "corporations base their expenditure decisions solely on a project's expected effect on wealth" [1]. Lenny backed this notion and shared the following:

"Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point." [1]

He said Exxon's 1981 venture to develop the Natuna Gas Fields spiked its climate change interest. The reserves had 70% carbon dioxide levels, which would need to be vented into the atmosphere or injected into the ground. Exxon projected that if vented, the fields would be the "largest point source of carbon dioxide in the world," accounting for 1% of global emissions[1]. They needed to understand the potential for future climate change regulation and were "well ahead of the rest of the industry" in awareness[1]. Many other major oil companies did not become aware of climate change until 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen presented global warming research to Congress. It is important to note that Exxon never denied human impact potential to the climate but did "question ‐ legitimately, in [Lenny's] opinion ‐ the validity of some of the science."[1]


Lenny Bernstein was one of many climate scientists at Exxon. While he did not actively disclose information to the public during his time there, he did present some arguments in favor of climate science reality. In 1995, he was involved with the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbyist group funded by Exxon that opposed greenhouse gas emission efforts. He drafted an internal primer supporting human climate change impact and global warming concerns, but it was never released to the public[2]Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many. Overall, this ties back to his fulfillment of professional responsibility. He had an opinion on highly controversial information but did not press to impact the outcome. This suggests that he may have valued his career more than his profession. In the email, Lenny shared that the company had not lost its "position as the personification of corporate, and especially climate change, evil," although he feels "it is far more ethical than many other large corporations." Despite its actions and the fact that he was longer an ExxonMobil employee, Lenny defended the corporation.


Corporate Interests[edit]

Exxon, on its official website, lists the guidelines to its relationships to four primary groups in the following order: shareholders, customers, employees, communities. Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many.

"Exxon Mobil Corporation is committed to being the world's premier petroleum and petrochemical company. To that end, we must continuously achieve superior financial and operating results while simultaneously adhering to high ethical standards." - Exxon's Guiding Principles Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many.

From its mission statement, Exxon makes clear its priority in producing financial results. As Lenny stated in his email, though a company's actions may appear to be altruistic, that altruism is typically a facade for private corporate interests.

Despite the company's skepticism of the science underlying climate change, Exxon has been preparing for a carbon tax since as early as 2007. Some criticize the seemingly altruistic business decision as a PR-move.Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many. Others believe the move is a calculated attempt to shrink the market for high-carbon fuels, specifically coal, and expand the role of natural gas in the energy marketInvalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many.

Exxon logo.

Funding Lobbyists and Politicians[edit]

Exxon funded climate change deniers, including politicians and lobbyist groups such as the GCC. The GCC opposed actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions [3]. Founded by Exxon, the GCC was active in the 1990’s but dissolved in 2001 after membership declines in the face of public criticism. Exxon Mobil also supported the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators. Based on publicly available disclosures from 1998 to 2014, there was $1,730,200 in funding from Exxon Mobil to ALEC.[4]. In 2014, it was reported that Exxon funded 58 Democrats and 255 Republicans in the Congress who were climate change deniers [4].

Opposition Groups and Voice[edit]


In its 2007 Corporate Citizenship Report, Exxon pledged to discontinue financial contributions to groups detracting from their corporate and ethical goals:

"In 2008 we will discontinue contributions to several public policy groups whose position on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner [4]."

However, according to financial and tax records, Exxon has given $454,000 to ALEC and $1,870,000 to Republicans climate change deniers in Congress since 2007. Such actions have created opposition towards Exxon. An active opposition voice is Greenpeace. Greenpeace found that Exxon continued to fund a prominent climate change denier, Willie Soon, for years after the 2007 pledge. [5]. The records obtained by Greenpeace from Soon’s employer show that Soon received $76,106 from 2008 to 2010. As a result, Exxon's honesty has been questioned.


Many opposition groups question Exxon's transparency. However, research showed that Exxon funded many internal climate research studies and published the results in peer reviewed journals. For example, between 1983 and 1984, Exxon researchers published their climate change research results in Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and an American Geophysical Union monograph [6]. Roger Cohen, head of theoretical sciences at Exxon Corporate Research Laboratories at that time, believed that their "ethical responsibility [was] to permit the publication of their research in the scientific literature." Throughout the 80’s, quotes from Exxon scientists showed that their results were inconclusive about the impacts of oil companies on climate change severity. However, opposition groups questioned these claims and believed that Exxon was denying the accuracy of their own research evidence. They felt Exxon tried to cover up their negative impact on climate.


Fueled by research supporting $30,000,000 in climate change denial group donations over the years , Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wants ExxonMobil to be investigated by the Department of Justice since he felt “Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse” [7]. Exxon's actions, specifically its alleged corporate fraud, have led it to be targeted for investigations by the Department of Justice. The asymmetry between Exxon's internal information on climate change, provided by the company's in-house climate experts, and external position, given by executives, resulted in heavy scrutiny. [8]. The lack of consistency between internal findings and information provided to investors has led to further investigations by the Attorney General in New York[9]. Similarly, California is investigation Exxon to determine whether its misleading the public and shareholders amounts to securities fraud and violation of environmental laws[10].


Professional failure in the Lenny Bernstein/Exxon case cannot be assigned to a single individual. Investigations against Exxon for corporate fraud may suggest that Exxon failed its shareholders. Lenny Bernstein made clear that he did not believe Exxon behaved inappropriately. He actively presented scientific evidence to the company to convince them of the reality of climate change. Though it is clear he acted with integrity in his career, it is arguable whether or not he took sufficient action in defense of his profession when the underlying science behind climate change was being questioned by executives. As an individual, Bernstein's influence is limited. He alone could not make decisions for a company with tens of thousands of employees. The question is then how many others came forward - and if they did, why they were unsuccessful of alerting the world of climate change. As Bernstein writes, "Political battles need to personify the enemy", which is one reason why Exxon has been so heavily targeted[11]. Exxon, however, is composed of thousands of experts and decision makers. In the Bernstein/Exxon case, blame is not easily assigned. It is clear that professional failure occurred along the chain of responsibility.


  1. a b c d e "IAPE Speakers and Events". Ohio University. July 2015. 
  2. "Advisers to Industry Group Weigh In on Warming". New York Times. January 1996. 
  3. "Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate". Andrew C. Revkin. April 2009. 
  4. a b c "ExxonMobil gave millions to climate-denying lawmakers despite pledge". Suzanne Goldenberg. July 2015. 
  5. "Work of prominent climate change denier was funded by energy industry". Suzanne Goldenberg. February 2015. 
  6. "Exxon’s own scientists confirmed climate change – back in the 70s!". Mihai Andrei. Septemper 2015. 
  7. "Bernie Sanders Calls For Federal Investigation Of Exxon". Emily Atkin. October 2015. 
  8. "Fixing Exxon’s 40-year climate change scandal would be a great reason to have a time machine". Ari Phillips. October 23 2015. 
  9. "California to investigate whether Exxon Mobil lied about climate-change risks". Ivan Penn. January 20, 2016. 
  10. "Exxon Mobil Investigated for Possible Climate Change Lies by New York Attorney General". Justing GIllis, Clifford Krauss. November 5 2015. 
  11. "IAPE Speakers and Events". Ohio University. 2015.