Exxon Continues To Save Its Own Ass

Michael Melvin

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Rhetoric and How Exxon Continues To Save Its Own Ass

Exxon is a global energy conglomerate that is one of the largest publicly traded energy companies in the world. With such a large presence in the world, Exxon needs to protect the United States by abiding by ethical concerns brought to our attention by foreign countries they do business in. For many years, Exxon has used rhetoric to brand itself as environmentally friendly and conscious. By analysing rhetoric located on the Exxon website and by listening to interviews with the current and past CEOs of Exxon, we can truly see if the corporate ethics on a macro level matches that in action. As a company that has, in recent times, pledged support to the Paris Agreement and reduce its carbon emissions, it is essential that we analyze what the company stands for in order to fully understand how the future will present itself with this company. From an environment friendly perspective, crude oil should never be as prevalent as it is today. However, the demand that backs travel and energy is so large that companies like Exxon are allowed to continue practices that are bad for the environment. In order for Exxon to properly follow their ethics code, the company should be going into cleaner energy research. While this has been done, the market for gas and oil has only skyrocketed relative to the current economy. Will Exxon continue its old ways and ignore the growing concerns over climate change through the use of rhetoric? Or will Exxon pivot their stance on energy in order to promote a healthier planet? The answers to these questions could change at any moment based on the rhetoric that Exxon uses in order to promote its own self interests.

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 Exxon protects itself through corporate ethics and expediency, by using calculated vague words during press releases and interviews. This was primarily the job of Rex Tillerson, until his disassociation with the company in 2017 due to his nomination as Secretary of State. Through his dissociation with this large company, Rex Tillerson was given a cushy $180 million and let go. Initially, Tillerson started out at Exxon during the financial crisis in 2008. Since then, Tillerson has raised the company into the global conglomerate that we saw before the pandemic. Due to increased instability and concern over the future of crude oil, Exxon appointed Darren Woods as the new CEO. So far, Woods’ career as CEO has been a strategic failure. When Darren joined Exxon in 2017, the price of the stock was equivalent to 90 USD. Four years later, Exxon would reach unprecedented lows of 32 USD. 

While Darren Woods could never have predicted such low demand for crude oil, he is still the face of the company and should be treated as such. Presently, the price of Exxon is trending slowly upward. However, if we take into account the drastic measures we have to take in order to protect our earth, crude oil may never reach the old levels of demand again if we are really interested in combating climate change. However, as the pandemic restrictions start to lift, we are seeing an increased demand for traveling, and therefore fuel. The airline industry is a large consumer of fuel, and they single handedly rely on Exxon and other energy companies to keep up with demand.

One could make the case that Exxon has such large purchasing power that they can spend money on lobbying in order to protect their status as a dominant market player. Through lobbying Exxon has been able to twist the dialogue so that they can survive in the corporate world and while still using rhetoric to satisfy shareholders’ environmental concerns. In response to the idea that Exxon has been lobbying, the corporate company page discloses that lobbying is a vital practice for protecting democracy in other countries. There is literally a page on the corporate website that is entitled Political Contributions and Lobbying. This shows that Exxon is not hiding the fact that they are manipulating politics in foreign countries for the sake of democracy. However, in reality the use of the word ‘democracy’ could just be used as rhetoric in order to keep their global businesses running. Exxon already dominates the world with its business. Thus, one could say that the sun never sets on the Exxon empire and that would be completely true.

On the macro level, Exxon has tried to adapt to modern environmentally conscious times. What once was an Industrial Empire is now on the outs. With global ethics being an important subject matter in today’s corporate world, Exxon is forced to find different ways to expand their empire. However in doing so, Exxon may become a totally different company in the next 10-20 years if the environment is lucky. However to be completely honest, we have no idea what is going on outside of US borders, as most of our news is based in the United States and runs off of basically a ‘zoom call’. This is very terrifying and should scare any investor as we start to open up our borders again. If Exxon can only keep their rhetoric together for a little longer they can regain their old power dominance over the world. 

Exxon prices going down is not a new topic. After the previous CEO Rex Tillerson stepped down, Exxon has been slowly bleeding. It was only until the 2019 COVID pandemic, that Exxon stock fully plummeted. It was here that Exxon needed to step up their corporate ethos and rewrite their entire platform. This was especially vital, as their previous CEO was nominated as Secretary of State for one of the most controversial presidencies the United States has ever seen. This nomination alone shows just how powerful the CEO of Exxon is from a political standpoint. 

The new and improved Exxon company, which backed the Paris Agreement, stands for finding solutions to the problems that face the world and its environment. However, the company still believes that energy ‘improves lives’ and is ‘essential’. In response to this Exxon has diverted investors’ attention away from its past, in order to focus on a new era of cleaner energy. One concrete example of this can be found by looking at Exxon’s investor presentations. Before late 2020, the company did not regularly include slides that focused on the environmental impact of its business. However, the company’s two most recent investor presentations, from December 2020 and March 2021, have both included slides focused on Exxon’s efforts to improve the environment. Even before Exxon regularly made the environment a visible part of its rhetoric, the company issued corporate responsibility reports. These reports were not advertised or brought to investors’ attention during earnings calls, but they contained rhetoric that painted Exxon as a company that was continuously monitoring and researching its environmental impact. In an ESG report from 2010, Exxon focuses on reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. The company report says “Due to the possible negative impacts climate change poses to business operations, human rights an economic development around the world, we urge further integration of climate change into the core of ExxonMobil’s business strategy.” According to Bloomberg, from 2017 to 2018, the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions intensity per barrel of oil equivalent spiked by almost 6%.

Exxon has used many rhetorical strategies in order to divert the attention away from the messy impact that its businesses have on the global front. Exxon has used their algae biofuel as a way to divert attention from the concerns over the ethical dilemma that is Exxon. For a company spanning more land than any empire ever to grace this planet, the environmental impact of Exxon must be disastrous. What makes all of this worse is that the United States borders are closed and we do not have many journalists currently reporting many stories overseas about these environmental concerns on a micro level. However, we do have years of research by Exxon scientists pointing to the increasingly dangerous impact of Exxons business overseas. These scientific journals have been released to the public and have even led to the New York Attorney General investigating this matter. Another prominent example is Exxon’s recent embrace of carbon capture. In 20200, the company proposed a $100B carbon capture infrastructure initiative. While this initiative sounds like an environmentally conscious move by Exxon, it also functions as a way to use rhetoric to advance its interests. One critical component of this plan is the use of public funds. By using environmentally friendly rhetoric to propose an infrastructure project, Exxon is able to lobby for government funds to put back into its business. Instead of using its own funds to make a commitment to improving the environment, Exxon used rhetoric to make itself seem environmentally conscious without having to put up as much of its own capital. 

Analyzing the scientific articles provided by Exxon, many journalists began to report on the topic. This brought rise to the #ExxonKnew movement. The #ExxonKnew movement is based off of the principle that Exxon lied to the general public about information regarding climate change and growing worries about the environment. In addition to deliberately contributing to climate change, these lies directly contradict the Engineers Code of Ethics. The Code states “Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct. Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall: Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” 

In terms of the #ExxonKnew campaign, the company already had an excuse: Lobbying. Using a dismissive tactic by acknowledging the campaign as competitor slander, Exxon just doesn’t acknowledge the logos of the situation at all. This is also evident when you visit the Exxon ‘Who We Are’ web page. It is here that rhetoric is placed strategically in order for the company to appear stable from an outside point of view. Also by blaming lobbying for a problem they are facing, Exxon is indirectly making lobbying a legit concern. 

As the world becomes infatuated with the idea of clean energy, the markets say otherwise. With Oil and Gas increasing by the day and global warming becoming a daunting threat looming over us, Exxon is forced to face the constant backlash from social advocates and journalists by using applicable rhetoric. Upon first look at Exxon’s ‘Who We Are’ page, it can already be taken into account that Exxon is using rhetorical techniques in order to convince the reader to support their own vision. Words such as ‘Human Comfort’, ‘Economic Prosperity’, and ‘Social Progress’ pop up in the summary of what exxon stands for. This is a take on pathos, as the organization’s purpose strongly reflects that of the company’s own bias. Instead of embracing humility in light of the situation at hand, Exxon uses key rhetorical strategies in order to distract the reader away from all of the controversy. By painting a picture of Exxon mobiles ‘humble’ beginnings, Exxon takes focus away from controversy and replaces it with a track record of success and stability. While this may seem vague and suspect, the investors love to hear rhetoric like this because it builds trust in the company’s value. By manipulating the rhetoric surrounding exxon, the company is able to keep a steady upward trend without much instability. However, competitors and social advocates can use the same rhetorical techniques to lobby against exxon. This can be seen through the #ExxonKnew movement, which has gained some popularity recently due to Exxons recent change in rhetoric surrounding the Paris Agreement.

The Exxon ‘Who We Are’ web page functions as rhetoric perpetuating the ideals of the company on a macro level. In order to figure out if the Macro vision actually worked, I went to an Exxon station in my area and asked some of its employees a few questions about the company and its involvement in the community. When I asked one of the employees if they thought that Exxon benefited the community, I got a resounding yes. One employee was cited saying, “Because it helps a lot of people out with gas and stuff like that”. This makes you wonder if the corporate ethos has rubbed off on its employees in the community. Overall through the rhetoric provided by said employees, I found that the corporate ethics seemed to have been lost somewhere down the line. However, the company did provide certain benefits to the employees I interviewed in the form of steady pay and Health benefits.

Through interviewing employees at my local Exxon station, I was able to gauge the awareness of such subjects on the issues regarding Exxon. However, it seems as if most of the employees are struggling to get by and rely on Exxon as a source of income. One of the women I was interviewing was also putting a kid through college, which is no cheap task. Even with financial aid, I have no idea how. With that being said, I wonder how the Exxons around the world operate on a micro level. This information is impossible to know as there are travel limitations due to COVID-19.

All in all it seems that Exxon is able to perform in the markets regardless of the controversy over their corporate ethics. The company seems to have an excuse for everything and has much swing in terms of purchasing power. For Exxon this rhetoric seems to be used in order to appear as a stable entity. By doing so, Exxon is able to stay out of the limelight even though they are so large and have such a global impact. Hopefully by reading this paper, you have learned where the real problem stands with climate change. The mainstream media tends to skew certain ways based on the dialogue they are trying to perpetuate. However, by doing so the media is always going to be biased to those who hold money and power. If we want to promote a more open dialogue, we should analyze more companies and see if their corporate ethics match up with what they are actually doing. 

-Melvin


Citations:

“Exxon’s Climate Denial History: A Timeline.” Greenpeace USA, http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/ending-the-climate-crisis/exxon-and-the-oil-industry-knew-about-climate-change/exxons-climate-denial-history-a-timeline/. 

Erprose. “Oil Giant Exxon Mobil Pushes New Climate Change Plan as Activist Investors Circle.” CNBC, CNBC, 15 Dec. 2020, http://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/14/exxon-mobil-begins-to-mount-defense-of-itself-and-a-bigas-activists-circle.html#:~:text=Exxon%20Mobil%20announced%20a%20new,the%20Paris%20Agreement%20reduction%20targets. 

HKS Authors See citation below for complete author information. , and Robert Stavins A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development. “International Climate Policy: The Durban Platform Opens a Window.” Harvard Kennedy School, 24 Jan. 2012, http://www.hks.harvard.edu/publications/international-climate-policy-durban-platform-opens-window. 

Ward, Andrew. “Shell Joins Exxon to Defend Paris Climate Accord.” Financial Times, Financial Times, 4 May 2017, http://www.ft.com/content/043320bb-1c59-301a-9e5d-20cce5dc28b1. 

“Political Contributions and Lobbying.” ExxonMobil, 15 Feb. 2017, corporate.exxonmobil.com/About-us/Policy/Political-contributions-and-lobbying. 

“Who We Are.” ExxonMobil, corporate.exxonmobil.com/About-us/Who-we-are. 

#ExxonKnew, exxonknew.org/. 

Gillis, Justin, and Clifford Krauss. “Exxon Mobil Investigated for Possible Climate Change Lies by New York Attorney General.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/06/science/exxon-mobil-under-investigation-in-new-york-over-climate-statements.html?_r=0. 

Press, Associated. “Tillerson Leaves Exxon with $180 Million Retirement Package.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 4 Jan. 2017, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/tillerson-leaves-exxon-180-million-retirement-package. 

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