Monday, November 09, 2015

Responsible, ethical DuPont. At least compared to Exxon.

Stung by claims that their product could alter the Earth's atmosphere and be a disaster for humanity, the dominant company in the industry launched its own research project in the 1970s and 1980s, only to find out that the claims were correct.

This sounds like the Exxon story we've been hearing in recent weeks, but it works equally well for DuPont. It's an eerie and overlooked coincidence that these two industry leaders were simultaneously following parallel courses for ten years in the 70s and 80s.

The difference of course is that by 1988, DuPont came clean at the highest corporate level about what its own science confirmed. From the link above, DuPont's CEO went in the course of three weeks in March 1988 from saying there was no need for CFC emission reductions to saying they would be out of that business by the end of the century.

I should emphasize I'm only grading DuPont relative to Exxon's behavior - the ozone problem was obvious enough years earlier, and the possibility of a problem, one that could've been worse than greenhouse gas emissions, was known even earlier. Still, DuPont didn't contradict its own scientists while Exxon did.  Exxon funded denialists and its CEO said as late as 1996 that "Currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate."

If, when, tobacco-style litigation ensues against Exxon and possibly other fossil fuel companies, the strong contrast between what Exxon said and what DuPont said to their investors and the public could be a powerful legal argument.

Leaving the legal issues aside, there's also the contrast between not just the statements but also what actions the two companies took. I don't claim it would have been feasible for Exxon to plan to get out of the oil business by the year 2000 (for one thing, CFCs were only a minor part of DuPont's business). However, Exxon could have taken the lead on starting to plan alternatives, and that's another key difference between the two companies in the 1980s.

Several years prior to 1988 and the official change in tune, DuPont started developing CFC alternatives and subsequently made a good business out of the alternatives while winding down CFCs. By the early 1980s if not earlier, Exxon had a comparative advantage over other oil companies in directly understanding the climate challenge. The renewable energy business was non-existent at that time other than large hydro - Exxon could've been in at the beginning to become a major player or the major player in what today is a big business with huge growth potential.

Other oil companies like Chevron and BP have put a toe, or more than a toe, in the renewable business. Exxon could've followed the DuPont model and have been way ahead of those companies. Instead as far as I can tell Exxon does nothing.

Exxon blew the opportunity that DuPont seized, and it didn't say what DuPont said.


jrkrideau said...

I was a bit cynical about the decision as I read the post but it really seems to have been both principled and good business sense in the long run. Pity Exxon seems to have been blind.

Totally off-topic but but just an indicator of how technology has changed in the last two decades or so:
From the article.
"Published: March 26, 1988

All day Saturday, Mr. Glas communicated by a personal-computer network with other Du Pont managers who also have PC's in their homes."

Anonymous said...

The substitutes for ozone-depleting chemicals are still chemicals; banning the old technology may have imposed short-term costs on DuPont, but as a large research-led company it probably had a competitive advantage in developing replacements.
Exxon is not blind - it is in a different situation, because the alternatives to fossil fuels are so fundamentally different from its core competency of getting oil out of the ground. It can invest in solar, tidal, wind, CCS, whatever, but it has no particular advantage over others when it does so - it's just a portfolio investment, as anybody else with deep pockets could make. Meanwhile, the value both of its reserves and of its organizational competencies plummet under any sensible public policy.
So, while the story does speak well for DuPont, it is still consistent with a model in which both companies are sociopathic monsters.

Hank Roberts said...

Ain't over til it's over. We hear talk about barely dodging a bullet -- but that wasn't a single shot problem. The ozone hole is still here.

Brian said...

Frederick - I think Exxon had an advantage over other fossil fuel companies in understanding their core product had an essential problem, so it could have been a first mover on alternatives via renewable power. I'll admit I don't know how much Exxon's oil expertise would transfer over, but to the extent it's a new industry then it's no worse off than anyone else. Anyway we'll see how things work out for the other oil companies investing in renewables.

Hank - I think you may be right, although IIRC, Eli posted a while back about the ozone hole shrinking. I had thought I read elsewhere that CFCs exceeded saturation at the Antarctic years ago, and would take more time before really reducing their impact. Don't know if that's right.

The analogy I'd make for the ozone layer is that we went from running straight at a cliff edge to running along a cliff edge. Maybe we're veering away slightly, but it'll be a while before we put much distance between ourselves and the cliff.

Wiki mentions some new pollutant (HCFC?) showing up in the atmosphere with no legal source. Someone's being bad.

Anonymous said...

Dupont's solution was maintaining the status quo by kicking the can down the road, which happened to allow them to maintain their infrastructure and maintain their market dominance. It was known then this was not going to be sufficient and this was supposed to be only a stop gap measure, but everyone was so eager to declare the 'problem solved' and 'humanity saved', including and especially Dupont.

So what we have seen for the last 30 years is a dearth of research into viable solid state alternatives to toxic greenhouse gases, the infamous ZT=4 thermoelectric, which now remarkably very well may be the hydrogen and iodine doped bismuth (110) crystallographic face, opening up an entirely new can of worms. It could be other things as well, but what can't be argued is that we don't need something like this now at room temperature. Federal funding would help a lot, but alas, the billionaires will have to take up some of the slack.

Of course, it doesn't take much atomic depth to absorb or reflect an optical photon either.


Flee for your lives !

Archimedes Plutonium is back !

Anonymous said...

Well, Russell, if you could formulate for me an actual quantifiable crackpot index in the Baez scale that you would a little more helpful.

Perhaps you can point out where I've gone wrong with it, because there are a lot more options, very few of which are being pursued vigorously.

I blogged the 'Russell Effect' for you too. So your immortality is guaranteed.

Unknown said...

It is also important to note that DuPont was quite aware of the global warming problems associate with the replacement compounds and even supported research in that area. Which means they knew many of the replacements would be temporary solutions. But they proceeded anyway since it had become apparent the the freons had to go as soon as possible. I consider that to have been a very responsible course on their part. Note also that other major chemical companies were involved in this, also, but DuPont had the lead.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of Dupont in the matter of CFC replacement. However 25 years later it's apparent, obvious in fact that the HFC and HCFC problems (the CFC replacements compounds) now needs to be solved with the urgency of the original CFC problem, since the data is fairly definitive now that we still have a pretty big problem.

And the jump from molecular fluids to electronic fluids is not a small one, and that's tied in with a variety of developments in condensed matter physics are are both remarkable and shocking in their veracity.

Anybody following this and working in the field will agree with me, that we are confronted with a veritable zoo of emergent physics in condensed matter, well backed up by both experiment and theory, that once tamed will be the only viable solution to the global warming problem. Not the population problem, not the cultural problems, not the religious problems, and not even the biodiversity problems, but certainly the energy problem and the materials and resource problems when you add in reusable launch vehicles and deep space mining, space colonization and all that jazz. So what you can do is spread the word.

And that word is 'capital'. I'm afraid to say. Government has failed.