Susan Avery, ExxonMobil, climate scientist
Susan Avery, the first climate scientist on ExxonMobil’s board, is stepping down. Photo credit: Tess Abbot / WHOItn / Exxon Knews (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Advocates had hoped Susan Avery’s nomination would be a turning-point moment for the company’s climate approach. It wasn’t.

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This story by Emily Sanders was originally published by ExxonKnews (in partnership with DeSmog) and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

When Susan Avery was first nominated to ExxonMobil’s board in 2017 after pressure from shareholder advocates to bring on a climate scientist, many hoped that her expertise could help steer the oil major in a new direction. Avery — a physicist and atmospheric scientist — had spoken during her extensive career of the need to “get off fossil fuels as much as possible.” 

More than seven years later, Avery is set to exit her role as chair of Exxon’s Environment, Safety, and Public Policy Committee with those hopes seemingly dashed. Evidence continues to mount that the oil giant is still spreading climate disinformation to delay action on fossil fuels, and it recently sued shareholders who proposed that it pursue emissions cuts.

Avery’s decision not to stand for re-election to the board was “for reasons unrelated to the company,” according to a February filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Avery, 74, is just shy of Exxon’s mandatory retirement age, though that was not cited in the filing — directors can run for re-election until they’re 75

The end of her tenure has reignited debate about the role of a scientist on the board of a major oil company with a legacy of spreading science denial and ignoring internal expertise.

“People wanted to give her an opportunity to change things from within, and I think there was an expectation that she would take that responsibility seriously,” said Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy organization that supported Avery’s nomination at the time. But Avery’s ability or willingness to change the company “certainly has not borne out in reality,” Mulvey said.

Avery’s selection came after a shareholder proposal requested that Exxon nominate someone with a “high level of climate change expertise” for its board. The company’s unusual lawsuit against other shareholders could chill further attempts to sway its business model that way. Avery’s last day will be May 29, overlapping with the company’s annual shareholder meeting, where a growing number of outraged shareholder groups and state pension funds now plan to vote against prominent members of the board, including CEO Darren Woods. 

With climate lawsuits against the company moving closer to trial, a growing number of states exploring legislation to make companies like Exxon pay for climate damages, and tensions with investors so high, “serving on ExxonMobil’s board is a high-stakes poker game,” Mulvey said. As Avery closes out her tenure with more than $3.8 million in compensation and stock value from the company, Mulvey said, “it’s not surprising” if Avery “decided to cash in her chips and go home.”

Neither Avery nor Exxon responded to requests for an interview.

Business as Usual During Avery’s Tenure

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Exxon is expanding its investments in fossil fuels. Photo credit: Mike Mozart / Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Avery, the former president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and  professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Boulder, was brought onto the board during Woods’ first month as CEO. “Avery’s leadership experience in multiple academic and scientific organizations, coupled with her breadth of scientific and research expertise, reinforce the corporation’s long-standing technical and scientific foundation,” the company said as it announced her appointment.

At the time, Exxon was battling subpoenas from attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts, both investigating the company for concealing its knowledge about the dangers of burning fossil fuels. The oil giant was just beginning to experience the fallout of early revelations about its historic climate deception; the tip of that iceberg was unearthed by Inside Climate News, the Los Angeles Times, and Columbia Journalism School in 2015. 

Behind the scenes, Exxon was taking a far less amenable tone in response to criticism of its climate approach.

Kill the story,” Exxon Media Relations Manager Alan Jeffers told Reuters’ Houston bureau chief in a 2016 email, responding to a request for comment on a Center for Media and Democracy press release accusing the American Legislative Exchange Council of abusing its nonprofit status by lobbying against climate action on behalf of Exxon.

In the years to follow, Exxon would become the target of lawsuits from state and local governments alleging the company defrauded consumers, lawmakers, and the public in order to delay climate action and protect its oil and gas profits. Evidence shows the oil giant continued to spread anti-science disinformation and internally strategize to manipulate the public’s understanding of its role in the climate crisis well into Avery’s time on the board.

A congressional report released last month following a years-long investigation found that Exxon and other oil majors’ campaigns of deception “evolved from denying climate science to spreading disinformation and perpetuating doublespeak.” Avery is mentioned in more than a dozen of the documents that members of Congress obtained from Exxon — but they’re almost entirely redacted. 

The investigation found that while Exxon publicly touted its support for the Paris Agreement “since its adoption in 2015,” executives privately admitted that the company did not actually intend to meet the agreement’s goals. The oil giant’s plans are far afield from allowing it to hit those targets, according to a March analysis by think tank Carbon Tracker, which placed Exxon among the five lowest-ranking companies on its scorecard. Exxon’s climate pledges don’t align with its actions, according to one peer-reviewed study, and are “misleading at best, dishonest at worst,” according to Carly Phillips, a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

During Avery’s tenure, the company also used advertising firms and funded partnerships with academic institutions to lend credibility to its climate pledges and promotion of “low-carbon solutions” like algae biofuels, which the company abandoned after spending millions advertising that as a climate fix. And Exxon worked to shift blame for its role in the climate crisis to consumers, according to a study of the company’s public communications by climate disinformation experts Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran. 

“The people who are generating those emissions need to be aware of and pay the price for generating those emissions,” Exxon’s Woods said in a recent Fortune interview.

A November report from the International Energy Agency found that oil and gas companies account for less than 1 percent of clean energy investment globally. “‘When the energy world changes, so will we’ is not an adequate response to the immense challenges at hand,” the report concludes.

But Exxon has vastly expanded its investments in fossil fuels, more than doubling its oil production in the Permian Basin after sealing a $60 billion deal to acquire Pioneer Natural Resources last year. Exxon and two other oil companies told Guyana that they plan to spend more than $12.9 billion on an offshore oil project there, the country said last summer. The company’s 2023 Global Outlook predicts an increase in methane gas use of more than 20 percent by midcentury. 

In a 2021 hearing as part of a House Oversight Committee investigation, Woods refused to pledge that the company would stop funding disinformation and lobbying against climate action. 

‘Like a Cancer Doctor on the Board of a Tobacco Company’

The same committee asked Avery to testify at a later hearing, but she never did. Instead, Avery appeared to use her expertise and position to lend credibility to Exxon’s claims of climate leadership.

“I’m proud to work on key issues related to climate risk at ExxonMobil,” she said in Exxon’s 2023 “Advancing Climate Solutions” report. “With my experience as an atmospheric scientist and a leader at a global research organization, I am committed to helping to advise the Board on public issues of significance. … The members of the [Environment, Safety and Public Policy] Committee are united in our commitment to position ExxonMobil as an industry leader in pursuing sustainable solutions that improve quality of life and meet society’s evolving needs.”

Sarah Myhre, another climate scientist and program director for climate advocacy and democracy reform at the Glaser Progress Foundation, contends that Avery compromised her scientific integrity to “performatively greenwash one of the most horrifically damaging, nefarious, and fraudulent corporations that has ever existed.”

“It’s like a cancer doctor on the board of a tobacco company [promoting] tobacco as a health product, something that is helping people live healthier, more vibrant lives. They’re taking all of their scientific bona fides and accreditation, and they’re using it for this outcome, which ultimately protects the tobacco company [as it] continues to kill people or damage their lives irrevocably,” Myhre said.

Michael Mann, a climate scientist who was subject to years of attacks from climate denialists funded by Exxon, described Avery’s service to the company as a “betrayal.” 

Avery’s decision “comes across as entirely transactional: climate scientist lends their imprimatur to the world’s largest publicly-traded fossil fuel company, under fire for their history of promoting disinformation and delay tactics, for seven years, and gets 4 million dollars in return,” Mann said in an email. “What is there that doesn’t look bad here?” 

Silencing Dissent at Exxon

What’s not known is whether Avery ever advised Exxon to change course. The company has a history of concealing the warnings of its own scientists and retaliating against whistleblowers — even recently

“The ability of a board member to move a company forward partially depends on the multiple stakeholder voices that the company is hearing and whether they’re willing to listen to them,” said Timothy Smith, senior policy advisor at Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, an organization that coordinates the work of shareholder groups.

Exxon’s lawsuit against two shareholder groups, filed in January, came in response to the shareholders’ proposal asking the company to limit its Scope 3 emissions, which arise from the use of its products and make up about 85 percent of its total greenhouse gas emissions. (Exxon’s “net zero” ambitions and emissions reduction plans don’t account for Scope 3 emissions at all.) 

Shareholder resolutions such as these are intended for a vote by a company’s stockholders. When firms want to keep proposals off the ballot, the established process is to appeal to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Exxon, which sued instead, claimed the groups were driven by an “extreme agenda” that is “calculated to diminish the company’s existing business.”

That claim was “really duplicitous because they know full well that this same agenda has been raised with them by other investors over the decade,” said Smith, arguing that the company has “become more confrontational and defensive rather than be a leader in this space.” 

The shareholders, Arjuna Capital and Follow This, withdrew their proposal. But Exxon continued with its lawsuit, defending the decision in its 2024 proxy statement and arguing that the “proposal process is being abused by those who treat shareholder democracy as a venue for activism.” A judge ruled Wednesday that the case can proceed against one of the shareholders, U.S.-based Arjuna Capital, but not the Netherlands-based Follow This.

Mulvey, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Exxon would rather battle its own investors than consider transparency about or a change to its fossil fuel business.

“Not only do they continue to fight back against mandatory climate disclosure and public policies that would hold them accountable, but it is also trying to undermine the notion that those who own the company should have a say over its direction,” she said.

Tensions could come to a head at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting as Avery steps aside. Shareholder advocacy groups like Majority Action have urged other investors to vote against the company’s entire board of directors, which CalPERS, America’s largest pension fund, has announced it will do. The Illinois State Treasurer and California State Treasurer have made similar recommendations to their state pension funds, and the New York state pension fund plans to vote against all but two of the board members.

“The [International Energy Agency] has laid out a plan to transform our energy system in line with the 1.5 C pathway. We’re at a critical juncture of how this is going to occur — and Exxon appears to be hellbent on foreclosing on that urgent and necessary discussion,” said Majority Action’s research manager, Bryant Sewell. “These directors have to be held accountable.”

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