Interview with William O’Keefe, former American Petroleum Institute executive

That’s the same William O’Keefe who’s been despised by enviro-activists ever since 1998 as one of the main ‘culprits’ behind what they claim was Exxon’s alleged disinformation efforts to deceive the public that burning of fossil fuels wasn’t causing global warming when industry leaders actually “knew” what the harm was. Why is he vilified? Because in April 1998, Exxon’s CEO was the top member of the American Petroleum Institute (API)  trade group, O’Keefe was its Executive VP and COO, and anti-oil activists have repeatedly said, from that year to the current time, in news reports, in various enviro-activist webpages, and even within many of the current 20+ “Exxon Knew”-style lawsuits such as Hoboken v Exxon, that API was engaged in a blatant disinformation campaign which was exposed by leaked memos known as the “victory will be achieved” set, a.k.a. the Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan (GCSCAP). O’Keefe is often misidentified as API’s CEO in places ranging from letters-to-editors and websites, to CSPAN and U.S. House Hearings, and in yet another example of how enslaved enviro-activists are to this memo set, it was featured just days ago in Al Jazeera’s full video post of an October 2020 documentary video which essentially was based on a notion that the memo set is still a driving force behind fossil fuel industry disinformation campaigns.

They consider this set to be “smoking gun” evidence comparable to the sinister efforts of the tobacco industry disinformation campaigns, in no less of a similar way they view the “reposition global warming” leaked memos — also seen in Hoboken v Exxon and nearly all the other current global warming lawsuits, notorious from the 1991-era to the present time. Al Gore very famously compared the “reposition global warming” set to sinister tobacco industry disinformation campaigns.

However, both memo sets are worthless as evidence of ongoing disinformation campaigns. Regarding the “reposition global warming” memo set falsely attributed to the Western Fuels Association (WFA), I’ve had firsthand confirmation for several years now from the top two people at the WFA and the people at their ad agency, along with independent confirmation that the “reposition global warming” proposal’s strategy and goals were rejected outright and the entire set was never even solicited by WFA.

Until just the recent few weeks, though, I could only refer to secondhand reports about the status of the so-called API memo set. Now, let’s hear directly from William O’Keefe about that entire situation:

“Interview with William O’Keefe, former Executive VP and COO of the American Petroleum Institute”

GelbspanFiles: When I first dived into the accusations about this specific 8-page memo (with a cover page by Joe Walker – an easier-to-read html text version is here, after the “Memo Follows” heading), I saw no sinister intent in it, but rather that it was an effort to tell the other side of the global warming issue that the public probably didn’t hear about in news reports. I later illustrated how Greenpeace itself could actually adopt all of the memo set’s basic format to suit its own polling of how effective Greenpeace’s messaging might be. One of your first emails to me said you hadn’t read the memo set in a decade. How do you view its intent today?

William O’Keefe: It was a brainstorming exercise. If my memory is correct, API simply hosted the meeting and wrote up the results.

GelbspanFiles: In your very first email to me about this GCSCAP memo set you said, and I quote verbatim, “never has so much been made of so little.” What did you mean by that?

O’Keefe: Because it was designed to generate ideas and not to develop a specific policy proposal. There was nothing sinister about stressing uncertainties. The public has been sold the notion that the science is settled. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. As one example, the IPCC estimate of climate sensitivity — the warming that results from doubling CO2 concentrations — varies by a factor of 3 and has for a number of years. Advocates use the high end to promote a worse case scenario.

GF: Were you aware of the GCSCAP memo set or the workshop it mentions before or after both the New York Times and the National Environmental Trust (here and here) simultaneously exposed it to the public on April 26, 1998?

O’Keefe: I am sure that I was because I was the person at API responsible for all climate change/global warming initiatives. What only rarely gets mentioned is that companies in the industrial sector had little interest in a major PR campaign because it was clear in 1998 that the Kyoto Treaty was not going to be submitted to the Senate for ratification because it had no prospect of passing.* The reason is that Senate Resolution known as the Byrd-Hagel Resolution opposing the Kyoto agreement was passed unanimously by the Senate in late 1997.

[ *Interviewer’s / Author’s note: WashPo op-ed written by Ozone Action’s John Passacantando, amply tagged at GelbspanFiles. ]

GF: Back in 1998, it looks like someone at National Public Radio’s “Living on Earth” program contacted you for comments about their “Climate Change Misinformation Campaign Charges” story on the GCSCAP memo set just five days after the NYT and NET simultaneously published their stories. Somebody at the Mother Jones magazine must have contacted API about the memo set in 2005 for their lengthy “Some Like it Hot” story, and I assume Sharon Begley of Newsweek may have contacted you about the memo set for her lengthy 2007 “Global Warming Deniers Well Funded” story. You replied to NPR that the memo set was an unsolicited, personal initiative effort of a low-level employee, meaning (I assume) Joe Walker; an API spokesperson told Mother Jones there was no evidence the plan was ever implemented; and you told Newsweek the plan was never implemented. Please elaborate on the three responses – was Newsweek‘s framing of your response done accurately?

O’Keefe: I don’t recall being contacted by NPR and the so called quote is not the way that I talk. It was never implemented because at that point no companies were not interested in spending money opposing Kyoto since it wasn’t going anywhere. There is also the fact that back then public opinion surveys on environmental issues place global warming near or at the bottom.

GF: For many of my prior GelbspanFiles blog posts on this memo set, I’ve relied on that one single NPR quote about how you didn’t ask for the set to be prepared. To me, that means it was unsolicited. Could you elaborate just a bit more on that particular situation? Who did solicit the memo set and/or workshop? Did someone at API answer NPR incorrectly on your behalf?

O’Keefe: I want to be absolutely clear. Joe would not have undertaken this brain storming session on his own. I don’t recall whether I or someone else proposed it but the members of the Global Climate Coalition did have discussions of the pros and cons of a PR campaign. The Senate Resolution was passed well before this meeting took place. It became clear during 1998 that President Clinton was not going to submit Kyoto for ratification because he knew that it would not be ratified. I have no idea who may have spoken to NPR but that quote, as I said, is not how I speak.

GF: The GCSCAP memo set has a cover page from Joe Walker, and the NYT said he was a P.R. rep / “leader” of the project, but also noted that while “no industry executives had yet been approached to pay for it,” the plan was intended to counter the Climate Treaty. Did the NYT accurately describe that situation, or was there more to it? I’ve lost count of the various enviro contradictory claims that the ‘campaign’ was to be funded in the $4-, $5-, $6-millions. Joe Walker was already on API’s payroll (I assume) so there’s no extra cost there, and I would guess that API might provide catered coffee and donuts for the workshop participants. Was it ever actually funded at all beyond little things like that?

O’Keefe: The NYT was spinning its preferred narrative. Joe Walker chaired the brainstorming session but was not a project leader. Joe worked for API at the time. You are correct that the only funding would have been for coffee and donuts. As to the specific question, the proposed action plan was never funded for the reason that I cited. Kyoto was DOA!

GF: Was this GCSCAP memo set actually an official API memo in the literal sense of that label? Or an official Exxon memo, for that matter?

O’Keefe: It was neither an “official” API or Exxon memo in the sense that it was intended to drive or represent policy. API hosted and chaired the brainstorming session for several organizations and wrote up the results.

GF: The late Phil Clapp of the NET said he “obtained” the memo set “from an industrial official.” Do you have any speculation who that might be? Or any comment about enviro-activist infiltrators within energy companies? In a related ironic twist to this angle, one of the anonymous online commenter stalkers of me (whose account I occasionally keep an eye on) recently inadvertently ‘introduced’ you to me, and then subsequently ran across a P.R. person for API and tried to entice that person to be a mole within API.

O’Keefe: I have no knowledge where Clapp got the memo but it was widely distributed among the participating organizations. I also have no knowledge of any espionage efforts by the climate advocates. If there was such an effort, it was a waste of time and money since API was quite open about its work on global warming. From my dealing with Clapp, I considered him a self promoter who I didn’t pay much attention to.

GF: The NYT said Joe Walker was the leader of the GCSCAP. The 2005 Mother Jones article implied the Marshall Institute’s Jeffrey Salmon and blogger Steve Milloy were headlining helpers. This March 2010 Esquire piece said API hired Milloy‘ to develop the plan.’ The October 2012 PBS Frontline Program “A Climate of Doubt” said Myron Ebell “helped create” the plan, while a November 2016 Energy & Environment hit piece against Ebell implied he was a main author of the plan with twelve others, and a days-earlier hit piece at the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy partner page credits Ebell with sole authorship. In an August 2016 hit piece against Texas GOP Rep Lamar Smith, Greenpeace said Exxon’s Randy Randol spearheaded the “API task force.” What is your opinion about the way these stories are presented? Did API actually hire anyone for this plan / workshop?

O’Keefe: API had a very talented public affairs staff and had no need to hire anyone to “write” a plan. My only comment on all of these allegations is that they are, as I previously said, never has so much been made of so little. We worked with each of those individuals mentioned. Since there was no “plan” that was implemented, there was no lead author.

GF: API, under your leadership at the time, quite often gets blamed for the existence of the GCSCAP memo set, although places like the DailyKos website predictably has anonymous writers saying Exxon was the ultimate boss and you were a “tool” they used. Among the 20+ “Exxon Knew”-style lawsuits, many rely secondarily on the “victory will be achieved” GCSCAP memo set (e.g. MN v API, ExxonMobil Corp, et al., after its primary reliance on the “reposition global warming” memo set) to say the ‘API memos’ were a tool that the fossil fuel industry used as a guide to determine how successful their misinformation campaigns were. What’s your reaction to these portrayals?

O’Keefe: API is a member driven organization, so obviously its positions on public policy issues reflect the views of its members. Exxon’s CEO was the API chairman at the time, so that may be the basis for the “ultimate boss” comment. I never thought of myself as anyone’s tool and positions I took on climate change were backed up by facts, science, and economics. What rarely gets mentioned is that on behalf of the API and Global Climate Coalition membership, I offered to VP Gore that we would support Administration efforts to increase in climate related R&D spending, would support the export of energy efficient technologies to developing countries, and would undertake initiatives to make cost-effective reductions in CO2 emissions. But we would not support binding targets and timetables. That offer was rebuffed.

GF: On another angle unrelated to the GCSCAP memo set — borrowing from the silly game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” trivia game, I suggest that the global warming issue is even worse on degrees of separation when it comes to the accusation that ‘Big Oil’ pays skeptic climate scientists to lie; any prominent person pushing that accusation is almost always separated by three degrees or less from Ross Gelbspan’s repeat of that accusation. Regarding the giant “IPCC Chapter 8 controversy” where Lawrence Livermore atmospheric scientist Dr Ben Santer was “attacked” (or was he? – that’s another story) over altering that chapter so that it would conform to a subsequent Summary Report, I wrote how Gelbspan factored into that story in my July 24, 2020 blog post which included what he said in his 1997 book about the ‘Santer attack.’ I’ve since found what appears to be one of his online draft articles where he repeated the story, “The startling public accusations by Pearlman and O’Keefe before a packed audience in an auditorium of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington left the two scientists visibly shaken.” That’s not a flattering portrayal of you. Is Gelbspan’s account of the confrontation accurate? Please elaborate on what you remember of this incident and related tangents.

O’Keefe: I recall the meeting in the Rayburn building but do not recall criticizing Santer at that meeting for changing chapter 8 after it had been accepted. I had earlier been very critical of his change because it changed the meaning of the chapter’s conclusion about uncertainty to an explicit claim about human causation. I did criticize him at the meeting for the way he presented temperature data. He omitted satellite data and only presented data that supported his narrative about rapid warming.

GF: That last question hopefully ties all of this into a much larger concern: Enviro-activists portray the collective fossil fuel industry as producing more harm than good, and as being driven by greedy leaders who’d stop at nothing to protect their self interests, including destroying the credibility of ‘innocent scientists’ such as Dr Ben Santer, and also going so far as to bribe skeptic climate scientists into saying things that are blatantly false. What is your view of the industry overall, and how accurate are the accusations which are aimed at its leaders and science experts who dare to question IPCC reports? Have you ever been paid to promote information you know was false, and has any operation under your leadership paid experts to lie or otherwise engage in disinformation efforts?

O’Keefe: I worked for API for 25 years and was never asked to mislead or lie about any issue. I never saw nor was aware of any company attempting to bribe a scientist to say things that were false. The statements that most so called skeptical scientists made were accurate then and are still accurate. The IPCC scientists and their followers had and have strong incentives to stay the course. As far as I am concerned the so called consensus is an example of confirmation bias and Group Think. To be clear, neither API nor I ever denied that global warming/climate change is real. The core of our position was that uncertainties were being too heavily discounted, that there was too much reliance on models, and that policy should not be based on worse case scenario assumptions.

GF: Two final questions: have you done an interview like this before with anyone – an official news reporter or otherwise – where you were presented with questions that enabled you to tell the full story of fossil fuel industry side of things, and if not, how would you describe the way questions were presented in those prior interviews? Just askin’, I have zero desire to be a professional reporter, but I am saddened over what passes for mainstream media reporting these days. Any thoughts to add to that?

O’Keefe: I did a large number of interviews and the vast majority were conducted fairly. Gotcha questions were called out and dismissed. I was rarely misquoted or quoted out of context but a some interviewers would use my answers within the narrative that they wanted to promote. On balance, I was treated fairly except by interviewers associated with organization like Ozone Action, Greenpeace, and NET.

GF: Thank you so much for your time. Last one – is there anything you would like to add to either the specifics of the GCSCAP memo set I may have missed, or anything you wish to add regarding the overall enviro-activist effort to smear the credibility of skeptic climate scientists?

O’Keefe: The actions by the climate advocates to smear those who disagree with them are disgraceful. When I was CEO of the George C. Marshall Institute we published a critique of a book by Naomi Oreskes where she distorted facts and engaged in character assassination of scientists who were then dead and could not defend themselves. People like her who attempt to stifle debate and dissenting views and engage in character assassination are undermining the scientific establishment and importance of seeking truth. They are practitioners of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Unfortunately, they have through persistence shaped public opinion and public policy to the detriment of our economy and fact based policy.