Mobil CEO admitted oil's role in climate change in 1998Mobil chief executive Lucio Noto captured on video discussing oil's role in climate change in 1998. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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By Karen Savage

A recently discovered video shows Mobil chief executive Lucio Noto admitting in 1998 that the company’s product is responsible for both emissions released during production and emissions released when it is used by consumers. That acknowledgement, a year before Mobil merged with Exxon, came in a speech to company employees and could be a blow to ExxonMobil’s climate liability defense.

Noto said greenhouse gas emissions from Mobil’s facilities account for “probably only 5 percent of the issue in Mobil’s case. Our customers using our products probably account for 95 percent of those emissions.”

The admission, coupled with statements he made regarding emission reductions, could prove significant in the growing number of lawsuits against ExxonMobil for contributing to climate change, particularly in public nuisance claims by New York City and several municipalities in California.

“We are not in any way saying that greenhouse gases can be dismissed as a risk or that climate change associated with buildup of greenhouse gases can be dismissed on a scientific basis as being a non-event. We think it could potentially be a big issue,” Noto said in the video.

Heidi Li Feldman, a professor of law at Georgetown University, said Noto’s statements could prove to be valuable evidence, particularly for municipal suits involving public and private nuisance claims, in which plaintiffs will need to prove fossil fuel companies had some awareness their products were causing harm

“This tape definitely shows, in my opinion, that Mobil was aware that their product was very likely to be causing the problem and they’re putting it on the market in the state that it was then in, was causing harm,” said Feldman, who specializes in tort liability.

The video, obtained by ThinkProgress, shows comments by Noto apparently intended to quell employees’ concerns about what they perceived to be “Mobil’s ‘negative attitude’ on the Kyoto so-called climate agreement.”

In his comments, Noto repeatedly denounced the Kyoto agreement, which had been signed the year before, and any attempt to regulate greenhouse emissions. At the same time, he acknowledged a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We do think that a prudent company should take steps to do what it can on a win-win basis to try to reduce its own and its customers’ emissions of greenhouse gases as best it can,” said Noto.

Feldman said Noto appeared to be walking a fine line and questioned the company’s motive for taking those steps.

“That sounds like somebody who’s aware that they’re making a product widely available that is causing harm or that you seriously think could be causing harm,” she said. “Otherwise, why would you be investing at all in achieving more efficiency here?”

Noto also cast doubt on climate science.

“We are also not prepared to admit that the science is a closed fact, and that we should take draconian steps tomorrow to reduce CO2 gases,” said Noto, echoing a brochure the company released a year earlier on global climate change.

In that brochure, Mobil conceded that sea levels could rise from 6 to 37 inches by 2100 and temperatures could increase from 1 to 3 degrees Celsius.

“Is this tape a ‘smoking gun’? No, it’s not a smoking gun. It’s not the company saying ‘to hell with the environment, we’re just going to spew greenhouse gases everywhere’,” said Felman.

“But on the other hand, is it a really valuable piece of evidence in the current climate change litigation against the manufacturers? Yes it is, because it goes to the question of for how many years, for how long were the companies aware that they were purveying a product that was causing damage to climate in a way that was going to lead to recurring constant damage to land.”

Feldman cautioned that while the video could be significant in public and private nuisance claims, it alone isn’t evidence of fraud.

“The only way you would be able to use this to show an intent to deceive regulators is if you had lots of evidence to show Mobil is going around publicly saying the sorts of things this guy is saying and privately saying ‘we know that there’s a much bigger problem than our public comment suggests, but we’re going to say these things to calm everyone down and to distract them from looking at the real extent of the problem.’  That’s fraud,” said Feldman, who added that Noto appeared to be sharing an honest assessment with the audience.

Whether Mobil and later ExxonMobil have been transparent with the public is the subject of investigations by two attorneys general.

New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman is currently investigating whether Exxon defrauded investors by using one accounting method to project climate change-related risk to the public and another during internal discussions and Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey is investigating whether Exxon deceived shareholders in her state.

Noto made very clear his negative views of the Kyoto Protocol and his lack of concern about how his comments and the company’s position would be perceived.

“We will continue to oppose mandates like the ones in Kyoto that make no sense, are not based in sound science and have potential Draconian consequences that no one understands,” he said. “That may make some of our people feel uncomfortable. Too bad—that’s where we are.”