Energy & Environment

Pressure builds to probe Exxon climate claims


The Obama administration is under increasing pressure to investigate allegations that Exxon Mobil Corp. misled the public about its knowledge of climate change.

All of the Democratic candidates for president have called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to launch an investigation, joining a number of Dem lawmakers and major environmental groups.

Some are also pushing for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to probe whether the company broke federal law.

{mosads}The pressure on the feds to act only intensified on Nov. 5 when it was revealed that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had launched his own probe.

The allegations are creating a headache for the country’s largest oil and natural gas company.

Exxon’s problems started in September, when news website InsideClimate News started publishing a multi-part investigation alleging that Exxon knew in great detail as early as the 1970s that carbon dioxide, produced mainly by burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas, was warming the planet.

The company, before its 1999 merger with Mobil, invested millions of dollars into its own research on the subject, reasoning that climate change could pose a great risk to its future.

But executives later steered the company’s climate activities toward sowing doubt about climate science and the role of fossil fuels in global warming, InsideClimate alleges. Only in the last decade or so did Exxon go back to agreeing with the mainstream science on climate change.

The Los Angeles Times soon released the findings of its own investigation that made similar charges.

Now, more than 40 environmental groups, along with Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail, are calling on Attorney General Loretta Lynch or SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White to investigate.

“Based on available public information, it appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratric contender for the White House, wrote to Lynch.

“The information that has come to light about Exxon’s past activities raises potentially serious concerns that should be investigated.”

Asked at a New Hampshire campaign event whether the DOJ should investigate, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton said: “Yes, yes, they should. There’s a lot of evidence that they misled people.”

“Given the damage that has already occurred from climate change — particularly in the poorest communities of our nation and our planet — and that will certainly occur going forward, these revelations should be viewed with the utmost apprehension,” said a letter from green groups to Lynch and White.

“They are reminiscent — though potentially much greater in scale — than similar revelations about the tobacco industry.”

While Democratic lawmakers such as Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) agree, Republicans appear largely unaware of the allegations against Exxon and skeptical of calls to investigate.

“You’re getting a lot of people looking so far to find something — particularly right now … before Paris — that can be used, that might have legs on it, and it’s just not working,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a vocal climate change skeptic and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, referring to the upcoming United Nations climate pact negotiations.

He added that he wasn’t familiar with the specifics of Exxon’s case.

Spokesmen for the White House and the agencies petitioned declined to comment.

Exxon has repeatedly denied the allegations and pointed to its long history of climate change research.

“For nearly 40 years we have supported development of climate science in partnership with governments and academic institutions, and did and continue to do that work in an open and transparent way,” Exxon spokesman Ken Cohen said in a statement.

“Activists deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various company employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers,” he said.

But despite the pressure, legal experts doubt the Obama administration has much authority to investigate.

Mark Latham, a climate change law professor at Vermont Law School, said a federal probe is highly unlikely.

“The feds could get involved, but I’d be somewhat surprised if they did,” he said.

Latham said the New York investigation should take some pressure off the Obama administration, since federal officials can rest assured that someone is looking into it.

“There could be a statute of limitations problem if you’re talking about conduct that allegedly violated some securities laws that occurred 10 years or longer ago,” Latham added.

New York has a unique ability to carry out its probe thanks to a state law called the Martin Act. It gives the attorney general broad powers to act against “any fraud, deception, concealment, suppression, false pretense” or “any representation or statement which is false.”

Brandon Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia College of Law, said the DOJ might look into a case if it could find investors who could prove harm.

“However, Exxon can argue, as it has, that they have consistently informed investors and shareholders about the risks associated with climate change,” Garrett said.

Tags Bernie Sanders Climate change ExxonMobil Hillary Clinton James Inhofe Sheldon Whitehouse
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