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Why Oil Companies May Be Our Best Hope for Climate Change Legislation in Congress

But can environmentalists work with companies like ExxonMobil that have long personified what is wrong with corporate America?

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He warned that oil and other corporate interests "had better speak out loudly for bold solutions or our species is likely toast. The fate of the future is on the shoulders of industry. We cannot ask too much to support natures' needs and we had better not ask for too little."

Chevron versus ExxonMobil

Chevron has now assumed ExxonMobil's former role as the favorite punching bag for human rights activists. How does ExxonMobil compare to Chevron on human rights?

"I've been working with these two companies for about ten years," commented Bennett Freeman, a senior vice president with Calvert, one of the oldest social responsible investing companies. "Chevron is a laggard on human rights. They are viewed somewhat as a renegade, hence the focus on their operations in Ecuador and Nigeria."

In contrast, Freeman claimed that "ExxonMobil has made remarkable progress on the human rights front," ranking them at the top of all oil companies, (although Alaskans who live around the Prince William Sound may disagree). That said, he also acknowledged ExxonMobil was the only company among the Fortune 50 that has yet to ban discrimination for the gay community, a major shortcoming. "Chevron is more of a master of environmental issues, though ExxonMobil seems to have recently had a dose of reality pills, and is taking climate change seriously," continued Freeman of Calvert. "For example, they recently invested $600 to $700 million on developing biofuels from algae." Referring to Chevron's "human energy" advertising campaign, he added: "ExxonMobil does not do the warm and fuzzy thing well. They are very straight forward. If they tell you 'no,' they mean 'no.' They have a "command and control" culture that helps drive commitments through the company. With Chevron, he said, "social and environmental initiatives often get bottled up in the general counsel's office."

ExxonMobil's most unexpected position, at least from the standpoint of some environmentalists, is Tillerson's public stance in favor of a tax on carbon. In a speech on October 1, 2009, Tillerson outlined a list of principles to guide any effective carbon regulation program: simplicity; predictability; transparency; and global participation. Tillerson then argued that only a carbon tax met all of these criteria. "I firmly believe it is not too late for Congress to consider a carbon tax as the better policy approach for addressing the risks of climate. Indeed, there has never been a more opportune time for Congress pursue this course of action."

"We would welcome the support of ExxonMobil for a carbon tax," offered Bookbinder of the Sierra Club, the environmental organization whose membership often veers to the left. "It may well be up to corporations whether anything happens on the climate change front this year. Do they want a carbon tax or a complex regulatory system from EPA and all of the states going off in all kinds of direction?"

"I spoke with ExxonMobil two months ago about a potential carbon tax," revealed Freeman of Calvert. "ExxonMobil feels that a carbon tax has less clutter than cap and trade, which creates an Enron-like market that will dominated by Wall Street."

Despite these promising signs of change happening within the corporate culture at ExxonMobil, skeptics have plenty of ammunition that the company's public and private stance on climate change still appears to be in conflict. For example, at the company's last shareholder meeting in Houston, Texas, shareholders report that Tillerson refused to acknowledge climate change was real. Recent reports imply the company was still funding scientist skeptics in the lead up to Copenhagen, though a few stakeholder engagement experts claim firm evidence of ExxonMobil's involvement is lacking, going so far as to say that employees can get fired if they publicly question the reality of human-caused climate change.