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In October, a critical report on Exxon Mobil’s climate change position appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Now the company is taking on the authors of the report — Columbia University’s journalism school.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd we're back. In October, a critical report on Exxon Mobil's climate change position appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Now the company is taking on the authors of the report -- Columbia University's journalism school. Here to talk about the reporting and Exxon's response, Neela Banerjee of Inside Climate News. From the studios at NPR in New York City, Paul Barrett of Bloomberg Business week and David Folkenflik of NPR. But, first, we hear from Susanne Rust. She's director and senior reporter of the Columbia University School of Journalism's Energy and Environmental Reporting Project. She was one of the lead reporters on these stories. Susanne, welcome to you. Tell us how you came to this story.
MS. SUSANNE RUSTWell, as you may be aware, the dean of the school, Steve Coll, wrote a book a couple of years ago -- few more than a couple of years ago, called "Private Empire" about ExxonMobil. And sort of, he just looked at the corporate culture of the company. And during his reporting, he talked to many people. And there was sort of an area of his reporting that he felt like he had never really finished. There were things suggested to him that ExxonMobil may have known not only a lot about climate change in the 1980s and late 1970s, but may have actually incorporated climate change into their business operations.
MS. SUSANNE RUSTSo, again, sort of by the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they were funding campaigns to deny or to, you know, put skepticism on climate change science, they may have actually been using that very same science in their own business operations. So we picked up from there and started trying to find if that was actually the case.
REHMSo how did you get a hold of the documents and information? Were they all public?
RUSTEverything, yes, everything we found was public. I had -- so the way the fellowship works is we have four recent graduates of the program. They all, you know, we had about 60 people apply for these positions. We took four. And one of the fellows -- one of the people who had been, you know, accepted into this fellowship, last November was Googling and found that there was this ExxonMobil archive in Texas. And she suggested that she go down and take a look to see what was there. I have to say, I had a lot of skepticism about it. I figured what was ever in the archives had probably been looked through by several lawyers before it got there. But...
REHMAnd that was at the University of Texas at Austin.
REHMAnd so your first story is on the Arctic. How come there and what did you learn about Exxon's thinking on climate change and their plans?
RUSTSo, again, we were really interested in how Exxon may have been incorporating climate change into their business operations. And the really obvious place for us seemed to be the Arctic. So we had some of the fellows look up to see what kind of research or building or development was done in Arctic countries. Canada was a really easy one to do because everything there is in English. And so one of our fellows stumbled upon this archive in Calgary that is held by Imperial, which is a subsidiary of Exxon.
RUSTAnd once she started looking into that, she realized that research had been done, and then started talking to authors of that research and engineers who worked at Imperial and Esso and discovered that Imperial actually had been aware that the climate was changing. It started making forecasts and projections of what was going to happen to their operations, to sea ice, to permafrost. And they based all of these projections on climate models that the company was, at that very time, disparaging in public.
REHMSo, let me understand this, if I may. The scientists were saying that climate change was occurring, that it was in fact believable that it should be regarded by Exxon. And then, your second piece looks at how Exxon began spending money on campaigns that questioned climate change. So how does that shift occur?
RUSTSo our second story really looked at this critical period of time. So as Inside Climate News has reported and we've shown also, during the early 1980s, Exxon was really involved in climate change research. They were working with universities and academics and sort of looking at the very basic questions of it. Something happened in the late 1980s that sort of precipitated this shift. And it seems the environmental movement was moving forward on climate change. There was -- been this whole issue with the CFCs and ozone, and we found documents that showed ExxonMobil was really worried about what would happen to the regulation of fossil fuels and they made a switch.
RUSTThey said, all right, now I think we need to start extending the science through emphasizing doubt. And so there was that very clear switch in the late 1980s, where they decided, as a corporation, that it was sort of time to change the messaging a little bit. So what we found in the Arctic was after they had made that switch -- as they were continuing to say, we're not sure, like, if the models really work, that they really project very well -- they were actually incorporating those models into their own business operation.
REHMEven though their own scientists had told them that the opposite was true.
RUSTCorrect. And even as their own scientists in the early 1990s were saying, listen, we're going to be building pipelines, we're going to be building infrastructure on permafrost. It's probably going to start thawing, so we need to account for that.
REHMAll right. Now, turning to you, David Folkenflik, bring us up to speed. Exxon has responded to this reporting from Columbia. Tell us about the letter they sent.
MR. DAVID FOLKENFLIKWell, I'm sure Susanne -- I'm sorry, go ahead. I'm sure Susanne has felt the sting of it more personally. But certainly Exxon was not happy to have this juxtaposition presented to the public and particularly in this way -- the idea that behind the scenes they were doing this intense science to figuring out what business advantages or disadvantages might arise from global warming, and publicly casting doubt on the certainty and solidity of the science and, in fact, lobbying against significant changes to federal policy to try to counteract effects for just those concerns.
MR. DAVID FOLKENFLIKOn November 20, they ramped it up. A very senior vice president at Exxon, Ken Cohen, sent a letter to the president of Columbia University in which he cataloged a series of concerns that the corporation had about the reporting, accused a reporter of misrepresenting herself, accused Susanne -- your guest here -- of failing to give the company adequate time to respond before one of the two major exposés and, in fact, accusing the team at Columbia of what they called research misconduct. So not just a question of journalistic exception being taken but actually asking the University to instigate formal procedure by which scientists accused of misconduct would be reviewed by outside agencies.
MR. DAVID FOLKENFLIKLee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, referred this letter of protest, in a sense, right back to Steve Coll, the dean of journalism, whose book research had, in a sense, inspired this very project. And Steve Coll has, in the last 48 hours, issued a detailed rejection of the allegations against the Columbia team on each and every count, but also an insistence that Exxon stop questioning the motivations and stop questioning the professionalism of the journalists involved. There's a clear, shall we say, body language from Columbia and from the dean that they feel that this is in essence an effort to stir up enough chatter, stir up enough distraction that people won't look at the substance of the reporting and evaluate it on its merits.
REHMPaul Barrett, give us some context. Does this story set Exxon apart from oil companies? Has Exxon been more outspoken on climate change?
MR. PAUL BARRETTExxon has been more resistant than at least several of its international rivals to getting to the position that they're at today, when they acknowledge climate change and in fact advocate certain steps to be taken in response to climate change. So, yes, I think it's fair to say that Exxon has been hawkish on climate change, when you compare them to, for example, Shell or BP, which more readily and sooner acknowledged the connection between the burning of fossil fuels and the heating up of the atmosphere.
REHMAnd here's the really strange part, Neela Banerjee. As you mention, Exxon was actually a partner with Columbia when it launched its in-house climate research.
MS. NEELA BANERJEEThat's correct. Exxon launched its in-house climate research in the late 1970s, in 1978. And they had a lot of resources and a lot of good engineers. At that time, there headquarters was -- were in New York and their research operation was in New Jersey. But they didn't have the expertise on climate. So they reached out to Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory and partnered with some of the leading climatologists of the time -- especially ocean scientists.
REHMThe question is, why was Exxon doing research at all on climate change? Was it just for business reasons?
BANERJEEI think -- so, you know, we launched our series in September. And we have a lot of documents on our website at InsideClimateNews.org that people can read. And what -- the story that they tell is that Exxon had -- Exxon scientists and upper management seemed to have a range of reasons for looking at climate change. As early as 1977, you had a senior scientist who made a presentation to the top management at Exxon about climate science, driven by fossil fuel, that, you know, fossil fuel combustion was driving higher CO2 in the atmosphere and is going to lead to global warming. And Exxon saw very early on that this could be a problem for their business, an existential threat to them.
BANERJEEBut originally their response was to really study the science and to -- and they understood that a policy was going to be made, that to have a credible voice at the table, they needed to do sound science. We heard this from scientists we spoke to who were involved in the research and we saw it in document after document and in the internal discussions that were going on at Exxon that are manifesting these documents.
REHMDavid, Exxon has a very strong financial relationship with Columbia University. What do you make of that?
FOLKENFLIKWell, there was this statement at the very end of the letter by Mr. Cohen to Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, in which he alluded to this strong relationship they had had over the years, institution to institution. And that relationship spanned funding, the creation of research centers, interactions with the business school and the recruiting of graduates for employment with Exxon. It was not presented as an explicit threat. But the juxtaposition of sentences in which Cohen makes clear that he wants a formal inquiry for what he calls research misconduct, which is specific language that's meaningful in an academic like Columbia.
FOLKENFLIKAnd the bringing up of these interactions and financial relationships suggested strongly to a lot of people that this was a threat. And it's hard to, I think, in a lot of settings, have your mind entirely open when, you know, there's the question of a threat being raised like that. Now, let's also be clear, Columbia is a huge, powerful and wealthy institution. And the financial investment of Exxon in Columbia's operations is not that big. You know, I believe, last year it was in the six figures. We're not talking seven, eight figures a year. But they have been substantial and real over time. And they've been meaningful to the centers and to the schools involved.
FOLKENFLIKSo that was a disturbing thing for a lot of people familiar with how academic centers operate.
REHMNeela, the New York Attorney General is investigating Exxon now. What are they looking into?
BANERJEEThey're looking into whether Exxon misled their investors about the risk that climate change poses to Exxon's business and to those investors', you know, holdings in the company.
REHMOn what grounds, though? On the basis of this research?
BANERJEEWell, apparently, from what we were told by the Attorney General's office, they had been looking into Exxon and other fossil fuel companies for a while now. They just did a settlement with Peabody Coal. So they were looking into Exxon for about a year. But our series and the Columbia Journalism series made the moment ripe for them to act. That's what they told us. And, you know, we came across a situation in the 1980s when Exxon was making business decisions based on their awareness of climate science. This was much earlier than anybody else was doing it. But they did not start talking to shareholders about climate risk until much later -- until probably around the year 2000.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David Folkenflik, how influential do you believe Exxon has been to the whole climate-denier side of the argument?
FOLKENFLIKWell, and let's be clear, Exxon itself, I think, would reject that label, would say that, you know, it would point to its scientists -- which are seen as actually among the stronger research arms of major energy companies in this country -- as having developed peer-review articles that talk about the implications and effects of climate science. And Paul can perhaps talk a bit more in detail about that in a moment. But I think that, you know, they need to be represented in this.
FOLKENFLIKI think it's unquestionable that, if you looked on the op-ed pages of The New York Times for decades, that Mobil and then ExxonMobil played an extremely strong role in trying to shape public perspective through its own corporate identity, through other think tanks and, you know, activist organizations and industry organizations they helped to fund...
REHMSaying what? Saying what?
FOLKENFLIKSaying essentially that the science was unsettled. Saying that this isn't clear. Saying that we shouldn't be precipitously damaging a major component of the American economy, one that is something of an advantage globally, simply on the off chance that some of this science might someday prove to be true and, at the same time, as these reports indicated, you know, really taking very seriously the implications for their own business plans. But this is, you know, in terms of influencing debate, Exxon spent money in terms of public perception, in terms of trying to sew academic uncertainty, and also in terms of trying to shape public policy on the Hill and in state capitals around the country.
REHMPaul Barrett, how do you see it?
BARRETTWell, I think, something to add to the mix here is the question of why, at this point, is Exxon being so aggressive, where they're clearly trying to bully Columbia, to discredit these journalists who have done this good work. And I think the answer is the tobacco scenario. ExxonMobil is now concerned that it will be analogized to the tobacco companies which covered up for many years their knowledge of the dangers of smoking cigarettes. And I actually think the analogy is not particularly tight. But on the other hand, that's what Exxon is worried about.
REHMAnd how well do you think that analogy holds up?
BARRETTWell, not well, actually. But that sometimes doesn't matter in the court of public opinion.
REHMNeela, how about you? How strongly do you feel it holds up?
BANERJEEWell, you know, I feel like that's something for law enforcement and the courts to determine. I, you know, one of the big differences is that tobacco suppressed their research when they were doing it. Exxon, at that time, didn't.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll hear from Exxon about that analogy. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Joining us now is Alan Jeffers. He's Media Relations Manager at Exxon Mobil Corporation. Alan Jeffers, I know that Exxon wrote a letter to Columbia, condemning the journalism that had come out of the journalism schools. Stephen Coll has now responded to that letter. What is your response to his letter?
MR. ALAN JEFFERSWell, first of all, Diane, thank you for the opportunity to be on the show.
JEFFERSI'm a huge fan.
JEFFERSAnd apologize for my boss, Ken Cohen, who wrote the letter, who was unavoidably delayed and couldn't get on your show today. But thanks again for the opportunity. I think, to answer your question directly, our response to Mr. Call's letter is that it doesn't address the fundamental difficulties we have with the series. And that is the documentation that they use is not reflected in the stories that they ran. And also, you know, there was an issue around the funding of the program by Anti-Oil Gas Act, this organizations that was not disclosed to the readers of the Los Angeles Times.
JEFFERSTo enable them to better assess the objectivity of the pieces.
REHMNow, what about this tobacco scenario and the analogy that some people are making between Exxon's earlier research, its delay in allowing its investors to know exactly what your scientists had found. Are you concerned about that?
JEFFERSWell, let me answer that by saying there is no analogy whatsoever. What, you know, despite some of the characteristics in the pieces and by your guests earlier about that we were doing things behind the scenes or in secret. Let me remind your listeners that all the documents, or many of the documents that were assessed for this report, these reports, were from our public archives that are made public. Our scientists have 150 publicly available papers, more than 50 of them peer reviewed.
JEFFERS300 patents on cutting edge technology advances in emissions reductions. So, we've been doing this in the open, in partnership with governments and academic institutions. In short Diane, our science is unimpeachable. And even Inside Climate News, Neela has written a story recently that talks about the caliber of our current lead scientist on climate today, Haroon Kheshgi, who is part of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, one of the lead authors.
JEFFERSSo, let me just say about our research, our research is cutting edge, it is with the mainstream, we have involved in this for nearly 40 years now. And it is unimpeachable.
REHMAll right. And as I understand it, the notion that fossil fuels was connected to climate change goes back to 1977. You had a senior scientist telling Exxon's top executives about it in 1977. Exxon's doing its own in house research through the 70s and 80s, keeping top management apprised of it. Yet our understanding is that Exxon only starts talking about climate change sometime in the 1990s. And actually talks about it being a risk to its business later on in the 90s and 2000s. Is that incorrect?
JEFFERSWell, I think that we need to understand and take ourselves back a little bit. In the 70s and 80s, what scientists were aware of and understanding, and there was a universal understanding of this, because it's obvious on its face that if you burn fossil fuels, you add carbon to the atmosphere. The challenge and the difficulties on the research is how much of that manmade component is contributing to what was becoming called the Greenhouse Effect at the time. And how do we decide and understand better what potential impact that will have?
JEFFERSAnd that led to, you know, the piece that Suzanne was talking about, citing a pivotal document in her piece on a presentation to the Exxon board back in 1989 laid out that risk of climate change. But also was very strong on the uncertainties about the potential impact of humans. You've got to remember, this is probably 15 years before, with any great certainty, excuse me, six or seven years with any great certainty, before any great certainty by the intergovernmental panel on climate change. And that is the world's experts that led to a conclusive decision on whether there was a discernible human influence on global warming.
REHMAll right, I have two questions, two final questions for you. Does Exxon still support groups that question the science of climate change?
JEFFERSDiane, we do not, and let me talk about that, if you would, for just a moment, please. So, we have been conducting research for many, many years on climate change and then, in, at the time around the time of the Kyoto Protocol, we and, if listeners remember, just about every large American business opposed Kyoto because of its exemption of two thirds of the world's emissions. It was unfair for the US economy to bear that burden. We opposed that, we supported groups that talked about economics. These were not scientific groups, this was not junk science or denial, as it's been so often coined.
JEFFERSThis was an opposition to policy. And if you don't like us opposing that policy, that's fair game, but accusing us of climate denial or supporting climate denial because of we're opposing policy, that is an unfair accusation.
REHMAll right, then let me ask it another way. Does Exxon now believe, wholeheartedly, in human effect on climate change?
JEFFERSWe believe, yes we do. We believe that human use of fossil fuels that add carbon to the environment are increasing the potential and the risk for climate change.
JEFFERSAnd we take it very seriously. That's why, since 2009, we've been supporting a revenue neutral carbon tax as a way to tackle that.
REHMAll right, and finally, are you reconsidering your financial support of Columbia University and its school of Journalism?
JEFFERSDiane, thank you very much for that question. I heard David say that, you know, the last paragraph of our letter was an implied threat. And that is absolutely not the case. What it said was we've had numerous and productive relationships with Columbia University for many years. And this was not our regular experience. That's all it was meant to say. This is not -- this is an institution with a wonderful reputation that we've enjoyed a great relationship with and we felt that the journalism that came out of these pieces was not indicative of that.
REHMAll right, but you haven't answered my question. You haven't answered my question.
JEFFERSOh, I thought I had. It was not a threat.
REHMWill you continue to support financially, the university and its school of Journalism?
JEFFERSWe had not been supporting its school of Journalism, but...
REHMAll right, but you have been supporting Columbia University.
JEFFERSYeah, we have numerous relationships with the university, none of those is affected by this.
REHMSo, you will continue you financial support to Columbia.
JEFFERSNothing has changed as a result of this.
REHMAll right, thank you very much.
JEFFERSDiane, could I add one last thing?
JEFFERSIt's just to a point that David had made. You know, the real issue here with us is the cherry picking and inaccurate reporting. And we want people to read the documents in their full. We put them up on our website on Exxonmobilsperspectives.com. Just for that very reason. We want people to look at the full document, because we think the issue is complex. It needs a full examination and we think that the journalism was an unfair misrepresentation of that.
REHMAll right. I want to let David Folkenflik have a chance to respond.
FOLKENFLIKSure. I mean, Mobil, Alan's colleague, Ken Cohen, excuse me, Exxon Mobil itself had a panopoly of concerns, including the way in which the journalism was conducted. The disclosures he mentioned, the L.A. Times did not initially make that it had been funded by a number of not for profit organizations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which Exxon is right, does support a transition to, away from fossil fuels because of concerns about climate change.
FOLKENFLIKAnd Exxon has taken exception to the ways in which some of its documents were presented. And he, Exxon is correct. Those are, the reason reporters did such good reporting was largely because so much of that documentation was in public archives. And the full documents he's talking about are worth looking about, looking at. Exxon feels that some background documents were used and quoted, even though that they were not necessarily publicly presented to, say, Exxon's corporate board.
FOLKENFLIKAnd the reporters clearly felt that this was indicative of the mindset, the kind of stage directions, if you will, if you think of when President George H. W. Bush once read aloud a notecard that said message I care. His aides were trying to suggest to him that's what he should be trying to convey. This is what the reporters in some ways were indicating that there was the underlying message of the corporation and Mr. Jeffers and Mr. Cohen and others at Exxon feel that they were using a draft document that was not approved for public release.
FOLKENFLIKAs somehow a formal statement of corporate intent in an unfair way. And that's one of many instances in which the corporation tried to push back...
REHMAnd Neela Banerjee, who is a reporter of Inside Climate News, would also like to comment.
BANERJEEYou know, as far as the documents go, we've heard that accusation of cherry picking and we expected that from Exxon before our series started to run in mid-September. And since that time, we have digitized more than two dozen documents, none of which came from Exxon, and we, you know, they are Exxon internal documents. Exxon has not challenged their authenticity. And not only that, when Exxon says, you know, you can read the documents yourself. If you go to their website, a lot of those documents are the ones that are actually from our website.
BANERJEEWhere they downloaded them and then uploaded again. We know, because they look exactly the same, including, you know, a couple of things where we only publish, say, two pages out of 50 because of trade secret issues and so on. And so, we felt the same way, that people should read the whole, the arc of their thinking as much as we can. I mean, each of these stories is very long. We've talked to so many people on the record and people on background about what was going on there.
BANERJEEWe talked to their colleagues at Columbia and the federal government. And, you know, what's interesting is that often when you report, there can be conflicting pictures, but people who hadn't spoken to each other for 20 or 30 years kept saying the same things over and over again about the kind of research that Exxon did. And then how it changed. And Diane, if I could one last point about what Mr. Jeffers said regarding, you know, a tax on Exxon science. No one is attacking Exxon science.
BANERJEEWhat people are asking questions about, we and Columbia, is that that pivotal way on the policy front. And it wasn't just lobbying that Exxon was doing on behalf of its own interests or poor policy. They really did fund organizations that have been pilloried by academies of sciences, by scientific organizations for spreading unsound, for spreading mistruths and lies about climate science.
BANERJEEWell, such as, you know, CO2 is, you know, is good for plants and that, you know, that the science is uncertain. When, in fact, the science was becoming much more certain. You know, leave, I mean, it was so interesting that Mr. Jeffers said that it's obvious on its face that CO2 from fossil fuels causes temperatures to increase when Lee Raymond, the Chairman of the company said that exact opposite in the mid-90s. 15 years after his scientists said what Mr. Jeffers said right now. I mean, it's sort of, they're coming full circle.
REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Alan Jeffers, would you care to respond?
JEFFERSI would like to. Thank you, Diane. You know, the simplicity with which we can capture this, probably the world's most complex scientific issue. How we model the climate and how we understand the climate is shocking. It's just not accurate. To say that Lee Raymond said the exact opposite is absolutely cartoonishly untrue. What Lee Raymond said was there are massive sources of carbon dioxide in the environment and that's not untrue. It actually, carbon dioxide actually is what plants use to grow. So that's, what Neela said is untrue.
JEFFERSBut the point I want to make is this is an extraordinarily complex issue. The modeling has been, you know, I heard someone say earlier that we were pillorying the scientists modeling. We were funding the creation of modeling at MIT. I mean, that's not a difficult thing to check out. Call folks at MIT, they know that's the case. They called our scientists to ask for help in doing that. We have been a fundamental part of increasing human kind's information about how the climate works. We are not jumping to conclusions.
JEFFERSWe're careful scientists that do things in a way that scientists should.
REHMI want to give Paul Barrett a chance to comment.
BARRETTWell, one final thought that I think is worth making is that there's a big difference between the journalism and this interesting debate about how to interpret Exxon's documents. And a criminal or civil fraud investigation. And I think while there may be evidence of hypocrisy here, the Attorney General of New York is going to have a much tougher time proving actual fraud for the very reason that Exxon Mobil has said so many different things over time about climate change. And because a cigarette is not the same as a tank of gasoline.
BARRETTA tank of gasoline has a very social constructive role in our society, whereas cigarettes don't. And I think that's going to rob any government investigation of this of the kind of momentum that was behind the investigation of the tobacco industry.
REHMDavid Folkenflik, do you want to comment?
FOLKENFLIKWell, you know, I think that, far be it for me to say whether or not the Attorney General of the state of New York is correct in launching this investigation. He says he's concerned about whether investors were misled by some of these major statements. These are sort of either ways to get headlines or they turn out to be big things as they ultimately did, as the wheels started to turn on the tobacco case. I will say that, you know, there is, in some ways, an echo of what Exxon seemed to do in lodging its complaint with Columbia against the journalism school's reporting team, by making it into a case of research or scientific misconduct.
FOLKENFLIKAs opposed to lodging an objection to the journalism and making its case with the records that it has shared and that are already public. I think that this is, you know, these issues are best resolved in the public sphere of discourse, by and large, and that's why I encourage to do by reading the original documents for themselves, getting into the rebuttals from each side. And seeing what to make of it. I think that, from Columbia's standpoint, the interesting question is, you know, they're hoping, I think, to continue their reporting and don't want this to bog down their ability to do that. But I think it's fair to look at, assess, and analyze the questions raised by Exxon in this case.
REHMAnd Neela Banerjee.
BANERJEEWell, I think that this is an attempt by Exxon to distract from the real issue at hand. And that is the history, not just of their climate research, but how that played with their policy stance. And, you know, Exxon continues to say that they no longer fund groups that push denial, but in fact, Exxon is one of the members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is meeting right now, in Arizona, as the meetings are taking place, you know, to address climate change in Paris. And so, you know, Alec has people who are pushing climate denial all the time and how Exxon can square that with what Mr. Jeffers is saying right now is something that I haven't heard a convincing take on.
REHMAll right, we'll have to leave it there. Neela Banerjee, Paul Barrett, David Folkenflik, and Alan Jeffers. Thank you all for joining us. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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