The Heat Is Online

ExMo To Change Rhetoric -- Not Policy

Oil giant works on its PR

Unlike its rivals Shell and BP, Exxon has never courted the green lobby

The Guardian Unlimited (U.K.), Jan. 8, 2007


The leadership at ExxonMobil has promised investors that it will "soften" its public image in a bid to rid itself of a reputation for being green campaigners' public enemy number one.


Chairman and chief executive Rex Tillerson made clear to a select group of top Wall Street fund managers and equity analysts that it would not be changing its basic position on global warming - just explain it better.


The world's biggest publicly quoted oil company faces a long-running boycott campaign against its Esso petrol brand by environmental activists in Europe.


A pugnacious personal style and an uncompromising stance on global warming and other issues taken by former boss, Lee Raymond, left it isolated compared to rivals such as Shell and BP which have courted the green lobby.


Mr. Tillerson, who took over January 2006, is said to have told the meeting of six analysts and four major investors that the company accepted it had a public relations problem.


"We recognise that we need to soften our public image. It is something we are working on," he told them, according to one of the analysts who attended the discussions.


But Mr. Tillerson's company has not just upset hardcore environmentalists, it has also crossed swords with the Royal Society in Britain which accused it of misrepresenting the science of climate change.


Exxon in turn said the Royal Society had "inaccurately and unfairly" depicted Exxon as a climate change sceptic.


The company told the Guardian it was determined not to change its position, just to explain it better: "Greenhouse gas emissions are one of the factors that contribute to climate change," it said.


"This is an extremely complex issue but even with the scientific uncertainties, the risk (of global warming) is so great that it justifies taking action."


New tone, same substance


A note put out after the meeting by Fadel Gheit, oil analyst at the Oppenheimer brokerage in New York, says the company "has clearly taken a much less adversial and more reconciliatory position on key environmental issues."


But the note adds: "Although the tone has changed, the substance remains the same."


Exxon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding research but has not copied companies such as Shell, which wants to build the largest ever offshore wind farm near the Kent coastline.


BP plans to construct hydrogen plants in Scotland and California and has set up a special alternative energy division inside the company. It has also taken out a series of adverts which highlight its green credentials.


But while BP and Shell have also been through a torrid couple of years on the oils front - due to US refinery and pipeline plus a reserves scandal - their rival Exxon has only produced record profits.


The Texas-based group now has cash balances of more than $30bn (£15.51bn) but Mr. Tillerson said there was no need for it to to make any acquisitions unless they offered very big extra advantages.


Exxon has managed to keep a lower profile and better relations with host governments than Shell or BP. Exxon claims to have encountered no problems with its Sakhalin-1 project in eastern Russia.


But the company is taking a robust stance over unilateral changes to contracts by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Mr. Tillerson told investors that he would take all necessary measures to protect its interests there.