2016 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom winner

Exxon: The Road Not Taken

Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman, Jr., David Hasemyer, Lisa Song

InsideClimate News

The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom


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We were stunned by the incredible amount of information gathered and presented.

About the Project

Ever since 1988, when NASA scientist Jim Hansen bluntly told Congress that global warming was upon us, a debate has dragged on over the validity of climate science, forestalling meaningful policy response to the looming environmental crisis.

Among the special interests that most effectively worked to manufacture doubt about climate science was Exxon Corporation. But until InsideClimate News began publishing a series of articles last fall, together with dozens of the company’s internal documents, the public couldn’t see the truth about what Exxon really knew.

As early as 1977 Exxon scientists warned top executives that the buildup of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels was warming the planet, posing catastrophic risks to people around the world and threatening the company’s core business.

Management’s first reaction was to authorize a deep dive into climate research. Exxon began sampling carbon dioxide in the oceans. It hired climate modelers. It collaborated with researchers in academia and government. It published peer-reviewed studies that confirmed the prevailing scientific consensus.

This forthright response did not last a decade. Instead, Exxon and its industry peers funded and gradually developed a sprawling network to disseminate scientific misinformation.

“Exxon: The Road Not Taken” is a nine-part, 21,000-word examination of Exxon’s engagement with climate change over four decades. It is based on company memos dating from the 1970s and 1980s that we obtained exclusively and published for the first time with the permission of our sources. We also conducted dozens of interviews with former employees, scientists and officials and searched through archives and the existing scientific, academic and journalistic literature.

Our work immediately gave birth to the Twitter hashtag #ExxonKnew. It spawned editorials and cartoons, op-eds and news stories, and coverage on radio and television, even a Sunday Doonesbury strip.

Within weeks of publication, the attorney general of New York issued Exxon a subpoena seeking extensive disclosure of records to see if its actions constituted fraud under the state’s consumer and securities laws. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and many others have called for a federal investigation under the Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute, the law underpinning tobacco litigation of the 1990s. Most recently, news reports confirm the California attorney general is also investigating Exxon.

A completely independent team from The Los Angeles Times and the Columbia Journalism School later published work that corroborated our accounts, enriching the story with new revelations.

It was validation that undermined the effort by Exxon and its allies to discredit our news organization and disparage our work. Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s chairman and CEO, went on Fox News to deny our stories. Company executives visited newspaper editorial boards across the country, and used the company’s blog and social media to claim, without specifics, that our reports were false and inaccurate. (Exxon has not asked us to make a single correction, nor has it questioned the authenticity of the documents we published.)

The biggest reporting challenge we faced was that many of the people involved in Exxon’s early climate research were deceased or in extremely poor health. Others did not want to talk. Nor was there a digital trail to follow. We hit a lot of dead ends.

Still, we built a chain of trust that led from one source to another. Eventually, we obtained hundreds of internal Exxon documents that allowed us to explore the story with precise, rich and unimpeachable evidence. They led us to key participants willing to be interviewed. We scoured numerous public archives, including Exxon’s own at the University of Texas at Austin, to compare the company’s public posture with internal discussions evident in the documents. With Frontline, we produced a short video and posted interviews with two Exxon scientists involved in the early research.

It was Daniel Ellsberg who first suggested to us a whistleblower investigation of the oil industry and climate science. A year later, when we wrote to thank him, he said it was inspiring “to see how hard, tenaciously you all worked at this. It’s very rare to see an inside account like this.”

InsideClimate News devoted eight months and half its staff to this unmasking of one of the most powerful corporations in the world, shown deliberately manufacturing mass confusion about a growing planetary catastrophe it well understood. Our work has significantly shifted the terms of the policy discussion at a crucial time in the search for solutions, and we expect, for many years to come.