Commentary

Exxon Faces Scrutiny Over What It Said Vs. What It Knew

The New York State attorney general’s office is investigating  whether Exxon Mobil knowingly lied to its shareholders — and the public — about the risks of climate change based on its own research. 

“The inquiry would include a period of at least a decade during which Exxon Mobil funded outside groups that sought to undermine climate science, even as its in-house scientists were outlining the potential consequences — and uncertainties — to company executives,” sources t ell the New York Times’ Justin Gillis and Clifford Krauss, who broke the story yesterday.

An 18-page subpoena issued by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman Wednesday evening requests, among other records dating to 1977, “marketing and advertising documents about climate change, including communications to employees and spokesmen about how to discuss the subject, as well as advertisements and other public-facing documents,” Steve Horn reports for InsideClimate News

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It also seeks “documents related to Exxon's support or funding of advocacy groups involved in climate change” and material on “climate change prepared for or by industry groups,” Horn writes.

“The investigation focuses on whether Exxon Mobil intentionally clouded public debate about science and hid from investors the risks that climate change could pose to its business, according to a person familiar with the matter,” writes Chris Mooney for the Washington Post. “Schneiderman has broad leeway to take on such a sweeping target under both consumer protection laws and New York’s Martin Act, a securities law that protects investors,” Mooney points out.

“We unequivocally reject allegations that Exxon Mobil suppressed climate change research contained in media reports that are inaccurate distortions of Exxon Mobil’s nearly 40-year history of climate research,” Exxon-Mobil spokesman Alan Jeffers emailed the Wall Street Journal’s Lynn Cook yesterday. 

“The company added that it ‘has included information about the business risk of climate change for many years in our 10-K, Corporate Citizenship Report and in other reports to shareholders.’ And it noted that its research over the past four decades has been ‘conducted publicly in conjunction with the Department of Energy, academics and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,’” Marilyn Geewax reports for NPR.com.

An Exxon Mobil spokesman issued the same rejection of the allegations when former vice president Al Gore called for an investigation of the company at the New York Times’ DealBook conference Tuesday, the NYT’s Leslie Picker reported, echoing the sentiments of Dem candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The ongoing reporting of InsideClimate News reporters Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman Jr., David Hasemyer, and Lisa Song  has rallied environmentalists around the cause. Their ebook, Exxon: The Road Not Taken, charges that the company “conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and then pivoted to work at the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed.”

Exxon and Mobil merged in November 1999, creating the world’s largest oil company.

The Los Angeles Times also recently published an investigation into the “gulf between Exxon’s internal and external approach to climate change from the 1980s through the early 2000s” after reviewing internal documents and published material, as well as conducting dozens of interviews along with Columbia University’s Energy & Environmental Reporting Project.

Other energy companies’ lobbying and communications efforts could face similar scrutiny, observers told reporters.

“Some legal experts compared the [NY AG’s] investigation to congressional inquiries into the tobacco industry, whose scientists discovered that cigarette smoking caused cancer while their executives publicly denied the health risks of tobacco,” writes Dino Grandoni for the Los Angeles Times

“We may be seeing the opening salvo of litigation akin to the tobacco lawsuits from the 1990s,” said Kenneth Rumelt, a professor at Vermont Law School, tells Grandoni. “The major difference this time is that the stakes are higher.”

“Exxon Mobil is not alone,” Stephen Zamora, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, tells the New York Times’ Krauss. “This is not likely to be an isolated matter.” 

But, Krauss points out, “big American and European oil companies can point to efforts they have made to support renewable energy, perhaps clouding attempts by prosecutors to paint them as one-sided on the issue of climate change.” And because many oil company scientists have addressed climate change in public papers and research, “it will be harder to make cases against the oil companies than it was against tobacco companies that deliberately hid research from their customers.” 

Indeed, “at this point, Schneiderman's inquiry ‘is all about the documents,’” former Maine attorney general James Tierney tells the Houston Chronicle’s Jennifer A. Dlouhy. “He believes he has reasonable grounds to ask for documents,” Tierney says, but “that's different than having reasonable grounds to press a case,” Dlouhy writes.

As his team plows through them, Exxon Mobil’s crises communications team likely will be burning the midnight oil, too.

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