by Katie Brown, PhD
How irrelevant and desperate has the #ExxonKnew campaign become? Well, they’re now claiming that global warming caused the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and that Exxon should have known it would happen. The claims were made in yet another article written by graduate students at the Columbia Journalism School, which was published today in the Los Angeles Times.
The article – fit more for The Onion than the LA Times – claims that ExxonMobil had evidence that the Columbia Glacier was calving due to climate change, but allowed one of its tankers to put itself in the way of the icebergs anyway.
Anyone who has ever followed the story knows that the only ice responsible for the Exxon Valdez spill would be the ice cooling the captain’s many cocktails that night. But for anti-Exxon campaigners, no alternate theories (or should we say alternative facts?) are too outrageous to publish.
For background, this is the LA Times’ latest installment of a series authored by graduate students at the Columbia School of Journalism, who were bankrolled by wealthy anti-fossil fuel foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) and Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF). The school’s dean, Steve Coll, also wrote an anti-Exxon book, Private Empire, while serving as President of the New America Foundation, which – surprise! – is also funded by the Rockefellers.
And yes, this is the same group that was criticized last week by a federal judge who said the Columbia School of Journalism and InsideClimate News (which is also funded by the Rockefellers and wrote its own anti-Exxon series) were “trying to pursue the same climate change policy agendas” as the attorneys general who have launched investigations into ExxonMobil.
Now why would the LA Times, which presumably wants to be seen as an objective news outlet, print such obviously paid-for (and ridiculous) “journalism”?
Perhaps it has to do with money. Recall that the LA Times failed to disclose that the original #ExxonKnew series it published in late 2015 was funded by the Rockefellers. It only did so months after other news outlets discovered the lack of disclosure. Even the Columbia Journalism Review said not disclosing this funding was a mistake, noting “the rollout after publication was botched. While this particular misstep occurred on the most contentious of stories, the question of when and how to disclose funding for such projects appears widespread.” Yet even after all that, the LA Times’ link to the page describing the funding for the original series is currently broken.
Clearly, the LA Times, Steve Coll, and the Rockefellers wished to keep their funding partnership secret. But after all these disclosures and several FOIA’d emails came to light, they must have felt compelled to list the Rockefellers as the funders for the project this time. However, the article fails to link back Columbia’s website or any of the materials they cite.
The disclosure also asserts “the funders have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by the project fellows in collaboration with the Los Angeles Times.” This is laughable, considering that the wealthy foundations that have been driving this campaign were recently forced to admit openly that they specifically paid the Columbia team to investigate Exxon for this exact purpose.
Lee Wasserman of the RFF explained in an op-ed in December 2016, “we paid for a team of independent reporters from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to try to determine what Exxon and other US oil companies had really known about climate science, and when.” He also admitted that they met with Democratic attorneys general, particularly New York’s Eric Schneiderman, to lobby them to launch an investigation into ExxonMobil’s climate research.
Against that backdrop, let’s have a look at some of the claims, followed by the facts.
The Columbia School of Journalism students claim Exxon should have known climate change would cause glaciers to calve, but they deliberately omit how the documents say calving has other causes.
The Facts: In the story, the Columbia School team quotes the Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council’s Iceberg Monitoring Project report by retired U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researchers as well as claims by USGS in 1975 and 1978 to argue that Exxon had been warned that climate would cause the glacier to calve, yet they drove the tanker directly into the glacier anyway. First of all, the Iceberg Monitoring Project report was published in 2000, more than eleven years after the incident!
Aside from the patently absurd claim that any energy company would knowingly and deliberately steer its investment into a spill, the reporters are cherry picking (again). The Iceberg Monitoring Project report notes that calving rates from the Columbia Glacier cannot be predicted and that climate change isn’t even among the most significant contributors to glacial calving. Here are some key passages from the source document to which the Columbia team refused to link:
“The breakup of Columbia Glacier that began in the late 1970s was likely caused more by negative mass balances directly linked to the twenty-five year period of low precipitation, which resulted in deficient snowfall and low winter balances, then [sic] by higher temperatures.”
“In general, these estimated climatic trends are not expected to have a significant effect on iceberg production during the next decade. There will be an increase in glacier runoff if the current trends continue, therefore, a greater tendency for icebergs to more rapidly drift away from the glacier during the summer months.”
“Changes in the climate probably have only a minor effect on iceberg production once a drastic retreat is underway as calving rates are more controlled by water depth and ice flow rates than by meteorological factors.” (emphasis added)
As for the claims by USGS in the 1970s, Columbia simply ignored other USGS reports published at the time, which find there are many other factors that cause glacier calving:
- A USGS study from 1980 concluded: “Nearly all grounded, iceberg-calving glaciers have experienced large-scale asynchronous advances and retreats. This behavior is apparently not directly related to climatic variations.”
- Similarly a 1977 USGS study on the Columbia Glacier itself noted that: “Nearly all calving glaciers in Alaska and other parts of the world which end in the oceans have experienced large scale asynchronous advances and retreats. This behavior is apparently not directly related to climatic variations.”
- Even today, USGS’s website states, “Though perhaps triggered by climate fluctuations, this major glacier retreat once initiated, has progressed due to the nature of the calving glacier cycle with little concern for the climate.” (emphasis added)
Exxon Valdez is the most studied industrial incident to date. Yet not a single credible study has ever stated that climate change was the culprit.
The Facts: The Exxon Valdez grounding and oil spill have been the subject of more than 15,000 non-unique citations, according to the May 2013 Bibliography of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Publications. These include 5,000 scholarly journal papers, expert conference reports, Ph.D. dissertations, books, documentaries, and state and federal government agency examinations.
Nearly 20 state and federal government departments and agencies conducted or participated in investigations into the Exxon Valdez spill. They include, but are not limited to, the Alaska Oil Spill Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the National Response Team, the U.S. Department of Transportation (NTSB), the U.S. Department of Commerce (NOAA), the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Exxon Valdez was also one of the most widely-covered news stories in history. It was the subject of more than 6,000 news stories in 1989, the year the incident occurred. To date, the Valdez incident has garnered attention in more than 66,000 news stories. It has also been the subject of more than 500 books and documentaries, according to Amazon.
Even the Columbia team admits the Exxon Valdez deviation from the navigating channel was a “standard maneuver” – and that the captain’s cocktails were the cause of the spill.
The Facts: Even with Columbia’s desperate attempt to link this incident to global warming, they had to admit that the tanker’s deviation from the shipping lane was “a standard maneuver carried out hundreds of times before.” They also concede that two other tankers did exactly the same thing and passed through safely:
Earlier that day, two tankers, the Brooklyn and Arco Juneau, had to deviate from their shipping lanes to avoid ice. “It was some of the thickest ice I have seen in that area,” the chief mate of a passenger ferry later told the National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
The difference with Valdez? As the Columbia team also admits,
That was a maneuver carried out hundreds of times by other ships in the narrows, without incident.
But instead of waiting on the bridge, Hazelwood left his third mate in charge and retired to his quarters, tipsy from what he would later say were “two or three vodkas” he had earlier that evening. Hazelwood declined an interview request through his lawyer, Michael Chalos.
The third mate never maneuvered back into the shipping lane, and the tanker slammed into the rocks of Bligh Reef. (emphasis added)
Those were also the conclusions of numerous investigations, including the Alaska Oil Spill Commission Final Report, 1990; the Federal On-Scene Coordinator’s Report, U.S. Coast Guard, 1993; the State On-Scene Coordinator’s Report, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, 1993; the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Team Report to the President, 1989; and the National Transportation Safety Board Report (NTSB), 1990.
In fact, the 1990 NTSB report concluded that the accident was a multi-dimensional failure: the driver failed to maneuver the vessel properly; the captain failed to provide a proper navigation watch; the company failed to provide a fit master and crew; the Vessel Traffic Service failed to provide proper equipment, training, and oversight; and finally, there was a lack of a pilot service.
But the “journalists” who wrote this report want us to believe that these facts were merely incidental elements, and that global warming is the real issue we should be focusing on.
With this latest installment, the Columbia team and their allies at the LA Times are simply continuing their campaign of misinformation, which is less about journalism and more about attacking a company that their Rockefeller funders want to marginalize. Or, as the activists themselves put it during a meeting at the Rockefeller Family Fund’s office last year: “To establish in the public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm.”