The saga started last autumn. The allegations, however, of a huge corporate cover-up on the then emerging science of climate change date back around 40 years.
And now the FBI could become involved. The saga of one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies started last autumn. The allegations, however, of a huge corporate cover-up involving lies and then more lies on the then emerging science of climate change date back around 40 years.
ExxonMobil is being investigated to see if it misled the public on the catastrophic impact of climate change. This March the FBI was the latest to be linked to the on-going controversy, following 17 US states’ attorney generals joining an initial probe by New York’s senior-most lawyer.
Counterparts in those countries will cooperate in the investigation on whether not just ExxonMobil but other fossil fuel companies lied to investors on climate change and the dangers of global warming to maximise their financial gains – in ExxonMobil’s case this amounted to $4.9 billion in first-quarter earnings for 2015.
“We have heard the scientists and we have heard what is happening to the planet,” said New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman in a press briefing. “Every fossil fuel company has a responsibility, to be honest with its investors.”
He was spurred into action following an independent study published last September by Pulitzer-Prize winning website Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times. What they found was bad. The reports revealed scientists employed by ExxonMobil warned the company about the link between burning fossil fuels and a warming climate as far back as 1977.
Even worse, the company is said by some to have relentlessly and systematically ignored what it knew to the point of allegedly misleading the public while it continued to belch carbon into the air without hindrance by its drilling. It is then said to have spent millions of dollars to promote climate denial. Regardless of the climate, it’s hotting up for ExxonMobil and maybe more oil giants.
Controversy follows ExonnMobil. The largest, most high-profile descendant of John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company was ruled an illegal monopoly in 1911 and broken up into various companies including Exxon, Mobil and Chevron. Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999.
Not so high-profile, until recently, was just how much that merger, ExxonMobil, knew about climate change and for how long. Judicial watchdogs will also be wanting to know what the company did or did not do to inform the public or limit the effects of its production methods.
One of Europe’s most well-known environmentalists and founder of the climate campaign 350.org Bill McKibben wrote in British newspaper the Guardian: “To understand the treachery – the sheer, profound, and I think unparalleled evil – of Exxon, one must remember the timing.”
Global warming, he went on, became a public topic in 1988. If the company had admitted its research had suggested scientists were right and that “we are in a dangerous place,” the debate would actually have ended.
“Instead, knowingly, they helped organise the most consequential lie in human history and kept that lie going past the point where we can protect the poles, prevent acidification of the oceans, or slow sea level rise enough to save the most vulnerable regions and cultures. No corporation has ever done anything this big and this bad.”
ExxonMobil hit back in no-less forthright terms: the climate research stories are “inaccurate and deliberately misleading”. For nearly 40 years it has supported the development of climate science in partnership with governments and academic institutions, and has done so in an “open and transparent” way, said vice president of public and government affairs Ken Cohen. “Activists deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various company employees to suggest wrongly definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers. These activists took those statements out of context and ignored other readily available statements demonstrating our researchers recognised the developing nature of climate science at the time which, in fact, mirrored global understanding.
“Both Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times ignored evidence provided by the company of continuous and publicly available climate research that refutes their claims. The facts are that we identified the potential risks of climate change and have taken the issue very seriously.” Cohen added his company embarked on decades of research with parties including academic institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to advance climate science. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil scientists had been selected by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and had contributed to various National Research Council boards and committees.
“We recognise that our past participation in broad coalitions that opposed ineffective climate policies subjects us to criticism by climate activist groups. But we will continue to advocate for policies that reduce emissions while enabling economic growth.” This has done little to quell momentum for a full-scale legal investigation. According to the New York Times, more than 40 of the nation’s leading environmental and social justice groups demanded a federal probe of Exxon Mobil in late October 2015, accusing the company of deceiving the American public about the risks of climate change to protect its profits.
In the late 1990s, the newspaper reports, Exxon joined with many business groups to try to block American participation in an international climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. And for at least a decade it helped finance right-leaning ideological organisations that fought the treaty and attacked climate science to put doubt in the public mind. In a letter to the attorney general, the groups likened the actions of Exxon Mobil to the fraud of tobacco companies decades ago when they hid the risks of smoking. Even presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders are said to have called for a probe. And Joining the chorus is Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard.
“To make matters worse, ExxonMobil’s climate denialism isn’t just a thing of the past, it’s ongoing. While deeply shocking, it’s sadly not surprising: Greenpeace has been exposing ExxonMobil’s climate denialism for over a decade. “Yes, it’s outrageous, but now we need to turn that outrage into action to get governments and citizens to hold ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies legally accountable for the damage their activities have caused. “If a fossil fuel company like ExxonMobil continues to fight action on climate change even after years of its hypocrisy being exposed,” asks Leonard, “what will it take to stop it? The answer is legal action: ExxonMobil won’t stop unless it’s forced to,” she says, urging people to sign a petition calling for an investigation by the Department of Justice.” Even the Dallas Morning News, right on ExxonMobil’s doorstep in Texas, sees a missed opportunity: “Long the focus of controversy over its leading role in global oil production, Exxon had a chance as far back as the 1970s to change the international conversation about fossil fuels and climate change,” a recent editorial summed up. “It chose to go the opposite route.”
The editorial asked the million-dollar questions: What did Exxon executives know about global warming and when did they know it? From a 2015 perspective, it appeared Exxon could have taken a decisive, responsible course to gradually steer the world away from a “reckless dependence” on fossil fuels. Instead, the company spent years publicly denying global climate change.
“Sadly, Exxon had the opportunity to lead the world toward a measured, manageable approach toward a solution. With profits to protect, Exxon provided climate-change doubters with a bully pulpit they didn’t deserve and gave lawmakers the political cover to delay global action until long after the environmental damage had reached severe levels. That’s the inconvenient truth as we see it.”