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Houston Chronicle: Loren Steffy column: What exactly does a green Exxon Mobil look like?

Loren Steffy, Houston Chronicle – Texas – KRTBN
Published: Feb 14, 2007

Lee Raymond looked over the rose-tinted lenses of his John Lennon glasses and made an awkward “V” with his fingers.

“Peace, baby.”

Rex Tillerson could see Raymond’s toothy smile through the beard. Shoulder-length hair hung loosely around his predecessor’s face.

“Uh, hello, Lee. Nice, um, headband. We haven’t seen you around here in a while.”

“Not since that most righteous send-off last year,” Raymond replied. ” ‘Fattest Retirement Package Excluding Backdated Options.’ Quite an honor, man.”

“Let’s, uh, go in my office and talk.”

Tillerson, looking nervously over his shoulder, ushered Raymond out of the hallway. The bell-bottoms of Exxon Mobil’s former chairman and chief executive flapped as he walked like jibs loosed in a gale.

Once inside, Tillerson closed the door. He didn’t know where to begin.

“Lee, what’s going on? What’s happened to you?”

“Happened to me? I just wanted to fit in at the board meeting. I’d heard you guys had gone green.”

“Well, we’ve softened our stance on global warming, but … ”

“Yeah, see, I’m cool with that,” Raymond said. “You know, retirement’s given me a chance to reflect a little. Back when I was here, the world always seemed a little chilly to me, but now I realize that’s just cuz I was in a bad place, man. I’ve mellowed. I’m hip to green.”

“Well, Lee, we really haven’t changed that much. We’re conceding that global warming is a concern, but we still believe oil and natural gas are going to be the primary fuels for decades to come. They’re more efficient than anything else, and we believe, as you know, that we’re better served by finding more oil than on developing a wind or solar businesses. So it’s not that big a shift.”

“But it’s a start, baby. Before long, I bet Exxon Mobil refineries will smell like french fries. How cool is that?”

“Lee, please. We’re just trying to get in front of what we see as a major global policy shift. Last month in Davos, everybody was talking about climate change. It’s pointless for us to deny it. Even if the science doesn’t hold up, the policies will. So we have to recognize the political realities.”

“Go with the flow, man,” Raymond said. “The times are a-changin’ and all that. Johnny Browne’s been telling it like it is for years.”

Not like BP “Lee, what are you saying? We’re not going to follow BP. For all the money they’ve spent on being ‘green,’ they’ve still had a refinery explosion and a pipeline leak in Alaska. Their fourth-quarter profit fell by more than half.”

Tillerson pressed his point. “We’re not changing what we do. It’s like you always said, we invested billions in alternative fuels and it didn’t pay off. We’re not going to do it again. We just reported bigger earnings than any company in the history of the planet, and it was because of oil and gas.”

“Radical, man.”

“No, not radical,” Tillerson said. “Quite the opposite. But we see what’s happening in the world. Just this week, the mayor of London said he’ll triple the traffic congestion charge for gas guzzlers to improve air quality. That’s the public sentiment we’re facing.

“We have to do something, so we decided to stop making ourselves the villain,” Tillerson went on. “By golly, we’re going to worry about global warming as much as BP or Shell or some wind energy startup. We even ran some newspaper ads telling people what they should do to save energy. We’re hoping a little paternalism will make us look responsible.”

“Groovy. What took you so long, dude?”

Anger rising Tillerson flushed. He wasn’t known for loosing his cool, but he felt the anger welling in him.

“We’re Exxon. We are without peer, not just in this industry, but in all of corporate America.

“We earn more, we produce more, we maintain stricter financial discipline, we have a better safety record and we generate better investor returns. So what if we’re late to the game? We could hold out longer if we wanted.”

Raymond let out a long breath and chuckled a little. He took off the specs, peeled away the beard and pulled off the wig and the headband.

He tugged at his T-shirt and the entire outfit — denim vest, bell-bottoms and all — ripped away to reveal a white tailored shirt and red silk tie.

“Glad to hear it. I was afraid you’d forgotten everything I taught you.”

Tillerson stared at his predecessor for a moment, and a feeling of relief washed over him.

“Lee, thank God. You really had me worried.”

“Just flushin’ you out, baby.”

Loren Steffy is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact him at [email protected]. His blog is at http://blogs.chron.com/lorensteffy/.

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