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Exxon gets boost in climate fight

Exxon gets boost in climate fight
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Exxon Mobil Corp. and its allies are finally starting to pick up wins in the fight over the company's history with climate change.

After months of new investigations by state attorneys general, pressure from Democratic lawmakers, protests by environmentalists and more, Exxon's supporters say it has started clawing back with victories in court.

But the foes of the United States’ largest oil company are undeterred and promising to keep the fight up for as long as it takes to hold Exxon accountable for its role in climate change.

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At issue is the difference between Exxon’s public stance on climate change and its internal research on the issue, and whether the company's actions over the last four decades constitutes fraud or other crimes.

Reports last year in InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times said that as early as the 1970s, Exxon scientists had concluded that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels would change the climate. Exxon chose to publicly sow doubt about whether the climate was changing and what role fossil fuels played, mostly to prevent policies that could hurt its business, the reports allege.

Exxon has repeatedly denied the allegations, pointing to its current position that human activity is the main cause of global warming, and saying that its research has never strayed from the mainstream.

Now four liberal attorneys general are probing whether Exxon’s actions broke state laws. But recent developments highlight the challenges those investigations face.

Claude Walker (I), the attorney general for the United States Virgin Islands, withdrew a wide-ranging subpoena he had sent Exxon demanding decades of documents on a broad set of topics.

Walker also withdrew his subpoena of a right-wing think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of the groups Exxon previously funded to promote climate skepticism.

It also came to light that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) agreed not to enforce a demand for more documents in her investigation of the company while Exxon challenges it in court.

Exxon declined to comment on the developments, but its allies were cheerful.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who launched his own investigation into the liberal attorneys generals’ probes, said Walker’s move was a major sign of victory.

The decision, he said, “confirms what my committee has known all along — these legal actions were conceived and driven by environmental groups with an extreme political agenda and no actual regard for the rule of law. Companies, nonprofit organizations, and scientists deserve the ability to pursue research free from intimidation and threat of prosecution.”

Energy In Depth, an oil industry-funded blog, declared that the anti-Exxon campaign is “unraveling.”

“An environmental activist-led effort to restrict free speech has suffered a series of damaging setbacks in recent weeks, including the withdrawal of a controversial subpoena requesting climate advocacy documents from scores of non-profit groups,” the website wrote.

"[E]nvironmental activists are quietly conceding that the campaign has not panned out as they expected.”

Adding to Exxon’s victories, shareholders in May declined to pass almost all of the proposals from activists intended to make the company more transparent and accountable for climate change.

But Exxon’s foes still have numerous successes and are vowing to press ahead. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) is still actively investigating the company. California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), a candidate for Senate, hasn't denied reports from media outlets and lawmakers that she’s also investigating.

And the Virgin Islands and Massachusetts attorneys general made it clear that their probes are still active, even if their subpoenas are withdrawn or on hold.

“This agreement will allow the Department of Justice to focus on its ongoing investigation, without the distraction of this procedural litigation,” Walker said in a statement regarding the withdrawal of the subpoena, which spurred Exxon to drop its lawsuit against him.

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the movement and momentum are definitely still in activists’ favor.

“People are coming to understand that Exxon Mobil had its own scientists telling them repeatedly as far back as the ‘70s about the harms caused by the burning of fossil fuels. And notwithstanding what their own scientists were telling them, Exxon Mobil was putting out a public story intended to downplay and disparage and sow doubt about climate change,” Kimmell said. “The public is increasingly understanding that and seeking to hold the company accountable for that.”

Michael Kraft, an emeritus professor of environmental policy at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, speculated that the drive to punish Exxon might be fading because the company is no longer denying climate change science.

“Exxon’s been trying to be more outspoken on the issue, in terms of recognizing the reality of climate change and backing a carbon tax,” Kraft said. “So this is the new Exxon, and maybe that’s got something to do with it.”

Kraft said he supports efforts to hold Exxon accountable, but recognizes that it’s a “difficult case to make.”