Exxon Mobil CEO says support for Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal may soon waver. Here's why

Key Points
  • Exxon Chairman and CEO Darren Woods says support for the Green New Deal could falter as the plan becomes more detailed.
  • To combat climate change, the Green New Deal would overhaul the U.S. economy and energy system in just 10 years.
  • As Americans comprehend the plan's potential impact on their lives, they may reconsider moving so quickly, Woods says.
Exxon Mobil CEO on why support for the Green New Deal might waver
Exxon Mobil CEO on why support for the Green New Deal might waver

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal is garnering significant support, but the head of Exxon Mobil says people's views may change as the plan becomes more detailed and Americans begin to comprehend how it could affect their daily lives.

Ocasio-Cortez updated her blueprint for the Green New Deal last month, but has yet to suggest policies to achieve the plan's ambitious goals. Among other things, the freshman congresswoman calls for generating 100 percent of U.S. power from renewable sources, swapping gas-powered cars for electric vehicles and slashing carbon emissions — all in just 10 years.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have backed the plan, and the broad idea drew support across the political spectrum in a poll conducted last fall by public opinion researchers at Yale and George Mason University.

But eventually those big ideas will require action, says Exxon Chairman and CEO Darren Woods, and that's when the tide of public opinion could begin to turn against the Green New Deal.

"Energy is such an important part of people's daily lives and their standards of living that as you think about these big ideas and translate them down to smaller practical steps you take, people become very cognizant of what the impacts are for individuals," Woods said in an interview Wednesday with CNBC's Becky Quick. The interview aired Thursday on "Squawk Box."

"And as that starts to happen, I think people's view change as to how far they can go and how quickly they can go."

To be sure, as the world's largest publicly traded oil company, Exxon is not a disinterested party. The Green New Deal would almost certainly disrupt its business if it were successfully implemented.

McConnell wants to force vote on Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal
McConnell wants to force vote on Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal

But independent researchers and former Obama administration staffers also say racing to decarbonize the economy could backfire. Part of the reason policymakers have historically set mid-century goals is because the timeline would allow them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without disrupting daily life and sparking political backlash, like the Yellow Vest protests that rocked France last year.

Woods agrees with the architects of the Green New Deal on at least one point: Mitigating the risks of climate change and achieving society's goal of reducing carbon emissions are going to require breakthroughs in technology.

"The conventional set of technologies doesn't address all the gaps that are out there today," he said.

"There's a lot of different ideas out there, but when we look at it, it's got to be scalable — it's got to work at scale — and it has to be ultimately economic so that people can afford it. And it's got to be reliable."

Woods says Exxon is focusing on creating biodiesel from algae because it can help reduce emissions from commercial transportation.

The company is also researching carbon capture and storage, a technology that strips carbon from industrial emissions. However, Woods acknowledges that the economics are challenging and the industry needs to find more efficient ways to capture carbon.

Exxon has recently taken measures to address climate change, including joining the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, after years of criticism for publicly downplaying the impacts of global warming. Last fall, New York state sued the company, alleging it misled investors about the risks climate changed posed to its business.