NEW YORK — Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson says fears about climate change, drilling and energy dependence are overblown.
In a speech Wednesday, Tillerson acknowledged that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet, but said society will be able to adapt. The risks of oil and gas drilling are well understood and can be mitigated, he said.
Tillerson blamed a public that is "illiterate" in science and math, a "lazy" press, and advocacy groups that "manufacture fear" for energy misconceptions in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
He highlighted that huge discoveries of oil and gas in North America have reversed a 20-year decline in U.S. oil production in recent years. He also trumpeted the global oil industry's ability to deliver fuels during a two-year period of dramatic uncertainty in the Middle East.
"No one, anywhere, any place in the world has not been able to get crude oil to fuel their economies," he said.
In his speech and during a question-and-answer session after, he addressed three major energy issues: climate change, oil and gas drilling pollution, and energy dependence.
CLIMATE CHANGE: Tillerson has acknowledged that global temperatures are rising. "Clearly, there is going to be an impact," he said Wednesday.
But he questioned the ability of climate models to predict the magnitude of the impact. He said that people would be able to adapt to rising sea levels and changing climates that may force agricultural production to shift.
"We have spent our entire existence adapting. We'll adapt," he said.
Steve Coll, author of the recent book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, said he was surprised Exxon would already be talking about ways society could adapt to climate change when there is still time to try to avoid its worst effects. Also, he said, research suggests that adapting to climate change could be far more expensive than reducing emissions now. "Moving entire cities would be very expensive," he said.
DRILLING: Tillerson expressed frustration at the level of public concern over new drilling techniques that tap natural gas and oil in shale formations under several states, a method called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." He said environmental advocacy groups that "manufacture fear" have alarmed a public that doesn't understand drilling practices. He blamed "lazy" journalists for producing stories that scare the public but don't investigate the claims of advocacy groups.
In fracking, drillers force millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and some hazardous chemicals into shale formations. The technique breaks up rock and creates escape routes for oil and gas. If the drilling wastewater is not treated properly or if it seeps through cracked drilling pipes, it could contaminate drinking water.
The industry's biggest challenge, he said, is "taking an illiterate public and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks."
ENERGY SECURITY: Tillerson made a distinction between energy security and energy dependence. He said that energy security — making sure the economy has access to energy — is crucial.
But he said access to energy is not in peril. "Some of the fears around energy security are not well-founded," he said.
The quest for energy independence, though, is misguided, he said. It doesn't matter where the United States gets oil because crude is priced globally. Even if the United States no longer needed Middle Eastern oil, it would likely want to play a major role in helping maintain the region's security, Tillerson said.