Environment

How Exxon Silences Staff Alarmed by the Climate Crisis, According to a Former Employee

Enrique Rosero spent years helping Exxon quantify and develop new oil reserves. But after he raised the touchy subject of climate change, he said he was pushed out.
October 29, 2020, 10:00am
Climate activists protest Exxon outside the New York State Supreme Court on October 22, 2019.
Climate activists protest Exxon outside the New York State Supreme Court on October 22, 2019. Charges that ExxonMobil misled investors on the financial risks of climate change were being heard in court. Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

At a town hall meeting for Exxon employees earlier this year, one of the company’s trusted technical experts decided to raise the touchy subject of climate change. “Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this critical topic,” Enrique Rosero said during a Q&A at the event, according to a written version of his remarks. “The documented efforts of the industry lobby promoting obfuscation and denial were shortsighted and irresponsible, and our sponsorship of it, shameful. Yet, none of us here participated in those decisions.”

The problem, as Rosero put it to the room, which included managers and executives, was the company’s unwillingness to move past the denial by taking measurable action to fix climate change. “We acknowledge the need to reduce our emissions, yet they are set to increase by at least 20 percent over the next five years,” he said. “In the end, wouldn’t you agree that this is a problem of behaviors and leadership—not science and technology?”

Rosero said he saw some people nodding silently. But Tolu Ewherido, an Exxon vice president, responded, “I don’t hear a question in there,” according to an account in the Wall Street Journal.

After that, according to Rosero, is when the backlash against him began. “There was an implication that I should have understood not to say anything,” he recently told VICE News.

Each year, Exxon employees receive a ranking which helps determine their salary and job security at the company. Rosero provided VICE News documents showing that in previous years he’d been ranked among the top-third of employees. This year seemed to be no different. After meeting with his supervisor in April, Rosero was informed that he’d been doing great work and would again receive a high ranking.

But when he was told his official ranking in July, months after the town hall, Rosero was surprised to learn he’d been downgraded to the lowest possible score. He was given the option of going on a three-month “Performance Improvement Plan,” or PIP, during which he would have to do regular meetings with his supervisor and could be fired at any time. Or, Rosero could resign. He left the company voluntarily in late July.

“We cannot comment on Mr. Rosero’s personnel matters during his time with the company,” Exxon spokesperson Casey Norton wrote in an email to VICE News. “At ExxonMobil, we encourage an open dialogue and we do not tolerate retaliation. We reject any claim that annual performance is evaluated on a single event.”

Academics who have researched Exxon’s campaign to undermine climate science during the 1990s and 2000s, some of it produced by company scientists, say it’s not unusual for Exxon to attack people it deems as threats. “They have a long track record of going after critics,” Geoffrey Supran, a Research Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University who has published work critical of Exxon, told VICE News.

Rosero believes he was on the receiving end of silencing tactics within the company—and other Exxon employees agree.

“I know Enrique Rosero and his work,” one person wrote on a message board discussing the town hall incident. “He was on all the high-value projects. He was a talented employee who worked hard in the general interest. He was brave and spoke truth to power—with ‘courage of conviction.’ And they PIPed him.”

Rosero, who was born and raised in Ecuador, was recruited to work for Exxon nearly 11 years ago while he was studying geosciences at the University of Texas. In those early days he sincerely believed that Exxon was committed to fighting climate change. The company’s slogan then was, “Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenges.” “So we were going to do the hardest, most technical things, going to the places where no one has been, and do our best to apply knowledge and technology,” he said.

Rosero’s most recent position at the company was “Upstream Uncertainty Analyst,” a job that required him to help quantify the size and commercial potential of new oil reserves found by Exxon. Rosero’s work helped make possible the development plan for Guyana’s massive offshore oil reserves, which could contain more than 8 billion barrels. Exxon CEO Darren Woods calls Guyana “an integral part of our long-term growth plans.”

For much of the time he worked at Exxon, Rosero thought that environmental critics were exaggerating the company’s role in spreading climate change denial. But then came reporting from the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News suggesting Exxon had studied climate change for decades and then undermined the science publicly in order to stave off regulations and protect its profits—the reports cited internal Exxon documents.

Rosero read the reporting, and he saw one document as particularly disturbing, a 1998 memo from the American Petroleum Institute, of which Exxon is a member, stating that “victory will be achieved when average citizens understand uncertainties in climate science.”

Rosero was still processing this information when a 2017 paper came out from Harvard researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran analyzing dozens of paid advertisements from Exxon, as well as its internal research on climate change. The researchers concluded that the company made misleading statements “designed to reach and influence the public.” It was the first peer-reviewed research to come to this conclusion.

Rosero was stunned by the paper. “I really wanted to talk to people inside of the company about this,” he said. “So I printed it out, I had it by my desk, and every chance I had I got people to take a look at it and read it.” Rosero said some people were interested in having those conversations, but overall it was a difficult topic.

As a result of his research, Supran was last year invited to testify before the European Parliament for a hearing about the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial. The day before the hearing, which Exxon declined to attend, the company sent a letter to several high-ranking parliament members claiming that “Supran is co-author of an inaccurate article accusing ExxonMobil of misleading the public.” One of Exxon’s critiques was that he and Oreskes had compared internal climate documents from Exxon with public denial statements from Mobil, despite them being separate companies until their merger in 1999.

Supran argues that’s a misleading critique, because both companies engaged in climate denial and belonged to organizations like the Global Climate Coalition which were set up to spread uncertainty. Exxon through its merger now has legal and moral responsibility for Mobil’s actions, Supran argues. “They tried to discredit me,” he told VICE News of the letter to the European Parliament. “It was evidence of the very behavior I’d described in my research.”

Exxon spokesperson Norton referred VICE News to a recent company-authored paper that said Supran and Oreskes used data that was “cherry-picked by another entity, Greenpeace, an activist group engaged in a long running anti-ExxonMobil campaign.” Supran and Oreskes said in their paper that some Exxon advertorials they analyzed came from a database compiled by Greenpeace—ultimately the advertorials were created by Exxon.

Nevertheless, Exxon has accused the researchers of leading “a coordinated campaign perpetuated by activist groups with the aim of stigmatizing ExxonMobil.”

Inside Exxon, however, Rosero was independently raising concerns about Exxon’s approach to climate change. “Given a shrinking carbon budget, how much discovered oil and gas do you estimate will stay in the ground and won’t be produced? How much of our portfolio is at risk to be impaired?” he wrote in an internal Exxon message board last December.

“When we consider investing in new acreage, is this a criteria?” someone responded.

Rosero’s statements weren’t always received well. After he posted a comment on the message board critical of “climate change denial,” an anonymous person replied,  “If you believe what ‘climate scientists’ told you, you should not work for an oil and gas company.” The message, which VICE News reviewed, went on, “XOM (Exxon) maybe better off without those working against it and not paying them.”

After being informed in July that he would either be put on probation or had the option of quitting, Rosero decided he no longer wanted to stay at Exxon.

“With relief and optimism, I’m resigning to pursue a different career path,” he wrote in a late July email addressed to colleagues and supervisors at Exxon. Rosero claimed that he’d been “punished” for asking a hard question during the town hall: “My observation was deemed ‘rude’ and my ‘tone’ disrespectful. So, beware: there are things more important than technical contributions, and there is a price to pay for challenging the status quo.”

Norton reiterated to VICE News, “As a matter of policy we do not publicly comment on an individual employee’s performance at ExxonMobil.” Yet the Exxon spokesperson also questioned Rosero’s character. “Reliance on a self-contradicting source like Mr. Rosero should raise serious doubts in your mind about the truth of what he’s told you,” Norton wrote.

Norton was referring to the fact that Rosero told the Wall Street Journal that Exxon pushed him out because of his views on climate change, while also writing a LinkedIn post saying he was leaving to work in renewable energy.

Both statements are consistent as far as Rosero is concerned. His decision to resign came after Exxon demoted him and then gave him the option of either leaving the company or going on a PIP.

For Rosero it made more sense to hand in his resignation and go searching for jobs outside of oil and gas. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I must shift my professional efforts to an organization actively working to address the challenge of our generation: climate change,” he wrote in the LinkedIn post. “I’m pursuing positions in market-based climate change solutions, risk mitigation, and renewable energy.” He is currently doing interviews in Houston and helping volunteer with the group Clean Energy for Biden.

He has no regrets about the day he left Exxon. “I felt relief,” he told VICE News. “I no longer felt that I was betraying my conscience.”

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.