Oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil is the target of a new state investigation that seeks to determine whether the company deliberately misled the public about the risks of climate change. The New York Times reports that New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a subpoena to the company on Wednesday, in which he demanded access to financial records, emails, and other documentation, dating back to the late 1970s.
Exxon Mobil funded research that downplayed the risk
The investigation will include a 10-year period from the mid-1990s to 2007, during which Exxon Mobil provided funding to groups and scientists who rejected or attacked climate change. Speaking in the wake of the subpoena, Kenneth P. Cohen, Exxon Mobil's vice president for public affairs, said that the company "unequivocally reject[s] the allegations that Exxon Mobil has suppressed climate-change research." But recent reports have indicated that Exxon Mobil was indeed conscious of the risks of climate change, choosing to fund groups that denied concepts of global warming even as it conducted its own research that showed climate change was a real problem. In the wake of these reports, members of Congress called for an investigation into the company.
Cohen argued that Exxon Mobil supported such groups in a bid to keep the United States out of environmental accords such as the Kyoto Protocol. "We stopped funding them in the middle part of the past decade because a handful of them were making the uncertainty of the science their focal point," he told The New York Times. "Frankly, we made the call that we needed to back away from supporting the groups that were undercutting the actual risk."
The investigation questioned if the company lied to investors and shareholders
The company has since noted publicly that it recognizes the risk of global warming, and has supported a tax on emissions, but it appears the company hasn't backed away entirely from railing against climate change science. Exxon Mobil pledged to stop actively supporting such groups in 2007, but in July, it was shown that it had given more than a million dollars to climate change denying Republicans in Congress and $454,000 to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council lobbying group. Just earlier this year, it was reported that Wei-Hock Soon — a Smithsonian researcher who has questioned climate change in public research — had received substantial amounts of money from Exxon Mobil and other oil and gas companies without publicly divulging the funding.
The investigation has reportedly taken a business-first angle, focusing on whether Exxon Mobil lied to its investors rather than the public at large. But if the investigation is successful, it could be a watershed moment in the fossil fuel industry. As with the state-led case against tobacco companies — which decreed that major firms had suppressed research linking smoking with heart disease, cancer, and other medical issues — the investigation into Exxon Mobil could kickstart a wave of litigation. The results could seriously alter the legal landscape for the huge corporations that rely on cutting into the Earth.