A coalition made up of attorneys general from 25 states and cities — as well as the Virgin Islands — have launched a probe to determine if oil companies deliberately misled consumers and shareholders about the risks of climate change. The investigation is spearheaded by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
In his article, “Why the government is right to investigate oil industry ads,” TIME magazine editor-at-large Jeffrey Kluger noted, “It was Schneiderman alone who launched the investigation last November 2015, looking into whether ExxonMobil knew about the risks of greenhouse gases as long ago as the early 1980s and took prudent steps to protect its own assets — such as raising its offshore oil platforms to prepare for rising sea levels — at the same time it was bankrolling efforts to deny there was any meaningful danger at all.”
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“The probe spans two areas of the law: consumer protection – whether Exxon Mobil engaged in deceptive or misleading business practices – and New York’s fraud and securities law, known as the Martin Act,” explained Alan Neuhauser in a U.S. News feature.
Meanwhile, a Reuters report by Valerie Volcovici and Sarah N. Lynch disclosed that the probe was actually “triggered by investigative reports by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times that showed the company’s in-house scientists had flagged concerns about climate change decades ago, which the company ignored or contradicted.”
The Inside Climate News report, “Exxon’s own research confirmed fossil fuels’ role in global warming decades ago,” was written by Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song, David Hasemyer. It discussed how in July 1977 Exxon Corporation senior company scientist James F. Black had warned the company that “carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.”
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In 1978, Black updated his presentation and once again warned Exxon scientists and managers that “independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles.”
Black had asserted, “Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.” He had also added, “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Exxon responded to Black’s pronouncement by doing more extensive research on the effects of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels on the environment.
Then, as Inside Climate News indicated, “toward the end of the 1980s, Exxon curtailed its carbon dioxide research.” The report went on to claim, “In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial. It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.”
The Los Angeles Times story by Amy Lieberman and Susanne Rust, “Big Oil braced for global warming while it fought regulations,” also made the same claim. “A joint investigation by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project and the Los Angeles Times earlier detailed how one company, Exxon, made a strategic decision in the late 1980s to publicly emphasize doubt and uncertainty regarding climate change science even as its internal research embraced the growing scientific consensus,” reported Lieberman and Rust.
Exxon Mobil’s Defense
Kenneth P. Cohen, vice president for public affairs at Exxon Mobil, has told The New York Times, “We unequivocally reject the allegations that Exxon Mobil has suppressed climate change research.”
In a lengthier statement, Suzanne McCarron, Exxon Mobil vice president of public and government affairs, declared, “The allegations leveled against Exxon Mobil again today are politically motivated and based on discredited reporting funded by activist organizations. We are actively assessing all legal options.”
She further pointed out, “The allegations are based on the false premise that Exxon Mobil reached definitive conclusions about anthropogenic climate change before the world’s experts and before the science itself had matured, and then withheld it from the broader scientific community. Such a claim is preposterous. It assumes that the expertise of a handful of Exxon scientists somehow exceeded the accumulated knowledge of the global scientific community at the time and that the Exxon scientists somehow were able to reach definitive conclusions before the science had developed.”
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More Work Needed
Meanwhile, groups like the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Greenpeace have lauded the move of the attorneys general.
That said, there’s still a lot to be done in connection with the probe. NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel said, “It’s really too early to say. I mean, I think it’s important to keep in mind, this is only an investigation at this point. There are no charges. There are no indictments. But eventually, it could turn into either a civil or criminal complaint. We’re just going to have to keep watching.”