New Calls to make ExxonMobil the “Phillip Morris of Climate Liability”

On February 6th, eighteen members of Congress from California penned a letter to the state’s recently confirmed Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, to join several other states in a legal fight to determine whether Exxon and its predecessor companies intentionally misled the public for decades on climate science. The missive notes a previous probe by California’s former AG, Kamala Harris, as well as the state’s record of leading “the world in responding to the dangers of climate change.”

Should Becerra resume the probe into Exxon’s past, he would not be alone. In March of 2016, attorneys general from California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and the U.S. Virgin Islands agreed to coordinate their energies in the investigation. The coalition of states intends to find out if the company misled investors by hiding its knowledge of climate risk, and whether it defrauded consumers. This effort comes alongside a rising tide of public criticism against the company, well captured in the trending twitter hashtag, #ExxonKnew.

The crux of the inquiry is whether Exxon had discovered the crucial link between burning fossil fuels and global warming, before and even while publically sowing doubt about the causes and even the existence of climate change. There are indications the company had knowledge of the impact of fossil fuel combustion nearly fifty years ago. Indeed, eleven years before NASA announce the impending danger of global warming publically, a high-ranking scientist for Exxon remarked in 1977 that “the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” Despite these early reports, scientists and former-Exxon employees claim the company worked to cast doubt on the growing body of science through misinformation. The company spent $16 million from 1998 to 2005 alone funding a network of organizations for just this purpose.

If this “uncertainty agenda” sounds familiar, it may be because it’s modeled off the tobacco industry’s nearly identical strategy to stave off the inevitable consequences of linking their principal product to severe public health consequences. A 2007 Report from the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that

“ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and successful disinformation campaign since Big Tobacco misled the public about the incontrovertible scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease.”

 

Exxon disagrees, calling the allegations that it developed accurate science on the climatic effects of fossil fuel combustions before the rest of the world “preposterous.” The oil giant has responded by trying to block subpoenas from the various state attorneys general probing the company. Though it has worked in some cases—as with the Virgin Islands, whose attorney general withdrew its request last July—Exxon has already released one million pages of internal documents to the attorney general of New York, Eric Schneiderman. Last month, a judge compelled Exxon to comply with a Massachusetts subpoena. With the possibility of any federal investigation into Exxon off the table for the duration of the current administration, state attorneys general are poised to lead the drilling.