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Exxon: Slick, Slimy, and Dangerous

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If it focused only on its own business, it might not be so detestable.

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Editors Note: Welcome to Love It or Hate It, a regular dual-column feature that will capture the love-hate relationship America has with some of its biggest, most controversial companies. For past columns, click here. For the opposing view on Exxon, see Exxon: Oiling the Engine of Our Economy.

At a June 2007 energy conference in Calgary, Alberta, two political satirists and activists known as the Yes Men impersonated representatives of ExxonMobil (XOM) and the National Petroleum Council. They demonstrated a new Exxon biofuel -- called Vivoleum -- supposedly made of the flesh from dead people.

After noting that current energy policies will likely lead to huge global calamities and disrupt oil supplies, "the NPC rep" reassured the audience that the oil industry could "keep fuel flowing" by transforming the billions of people who would die as a result of climate change into oil.

"With more fossil fuels comes a greater chance of disaster, but that means more feedstock for Vivoleum," the Yes Man-turned-Exxon representative said. "Fuel will continue to flow for those of us left."

The oilmen in attendance listened attentively to the lecture. They then lit "commemorative candles" supposedly made of Vivoleum obtained from the flesh of an "Exxon janitor" who died as a result of cleaning up a toxic spill.

The audience later reacted to the hoax, only once the pranksters were removed from the stage. Even then, reporters were still believers, asking the Yes Men if Vivoleum was real and how long it might take to produce.

Which raises the question: If the audience that day -- people in the energy industry -- thought this new Exxon biofuel might be real, what does that say about the world's largest oil company?

Almost no scientist doubts that global warming is here, man-made greenhouse gases are to blame, and that if we don't cut back on those emissions soon we'll be in big trouble -- hence the basis for the Yes Men's satire.

However, over time, Exxon has spent more effort and resources trying to stop action on global warming than any other company.

For many years, Exxon gave millions to organizations that fight the science. Its former chief executive long refused to acknowledge that global warming exists. Separately, Exxon spent 15 years appealing the court-awarded punitive damages the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill all the way to the Supreme Court.

For these reasons, one could in full conscience hate ExxonMobil.

Perhaps it is in part because of this corporate ruthlessness that Exxon has become the world's largest company. Doing the right thing is not something Wall Street typically values. The company is relentlessly effective at finding oil and gas and returning its cash to shareholders instead of reinvesting it in alternative energy sources. In the process, Exxon has entered the crosshairs of environmental coalitions such as Exxpose Exxon, a group set on pressuring the company.

If Exxon focused only on its own business, it might not be so detestable. It's obvious that we will not abandon fossil fuels overnight; our economy still runs on oil and gas. But with its massive war chest, Exxon has aggressively lobbied to protect its interests and prevent change.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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