Catalyst Winter 2016

ExxonMobil Feels the Heat

Illustration: © UCS/Audrey Eyring

The company’s climate deception draws media scrutiny and an investigation.

by Elliott Negin

Over the past several months, thanks in part to pathbreaking work by the Union of Concerned Scientists, ExxonMobil has begun to be called to account for its actions related to climate deception. Things began to heat up for the company last July, when UCS released The Climate Deception Dossiers, a report documenting that ExxonMobil and other top carbon polluters such as coal giant Peabody Energy have been fully aware of the reality of climate change for decades but spent tens of millions of dollars to misinform the public about climate science. UCS also uncovered evidence that Exxon had been factoring the reality of fossil fuel–driven climate change into its internal oil and gas extraction plans as early as 1981—much earlier than anyone had realized and years before there was much public awareness of the problem.

A few months after the report’s release, two news organizations published a series of articles that filled in more detail about the extent to which Exxon scientists had long known about the threat posed by climate change. Both InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times dug up evidence from company archives and interviews with former employees showing that Exxon was a leader in climate research in the 1970s and 1980s before becoming one of the most ardent climate science deniers, rejecting the warnings of its own scientists that the consequences of global warming could be catastrophic.

A number of new developments since then have kept the pressure on ExxonMobil. In light of the revelations by UCS and the investigative journalist teams, several members of Congress, three presidential candidates, and more than 60 leading environmental, science, and social justice groups (including UCS) called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate ExxonMobil for deliberately deceiving the public, much in the same way the tobacco industry lied about the link between smoking and disease.

A Formal Investigation Begins

On November 4, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched a criminal investigation to determine, as he told PBS NewsHour, whether ExxonMobil was “using the best science and the most competent [climate] models for their own purposes, but then telling the public, the regulators, and shareholders that no competent models existed.” If that’s the case, he said, the company could be guilty of fraud.

A month later, on December 7, 45 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to the CEOs of BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Royal Dutch Shell asking them to clarify exactly what they knew about the climate risks of their products, when they knew it, and what plans the companies are putting in place to limit future risks. Initiated by Representatives Ted Lieu of California and Peter Welch of Vermont, the letter draws heavily on the UCS report, noting that, “UCS uncovered many internal company documents which appear to confirm a coordinated campaign of deception conducted by the industry to deceive the public of climate science that even their own scientists confirmed.”

Were ExxonMobil’s Actions Illegal?

While ExxonMobil officials have been pushing back against the accusations in press interviews and opinion columns, the New York investigation now under way—as well as other possible investigations—will determine whether ExxonMobil’s actions were illegal.

By launching his investigation,Attorney General Schneiderman obviously thinks they might be. “In New York,” he told PBS NewsHour, “we have laws against defrauding the public, defrauding consumers, defrauding shareholders.” And, it goes without saying, there is no legal protection for ExxonMobil from fraud.

Sharon Eubanks, a former Justice Department lawyer who prosecuted the racketeering case against the tobacco industry, also thinks ExxonMobil’s actions might constitute fraud. “It appears to me, based on what we know so far, that there was a concerted effort by Exxon and others to confuse the public on climate change,” she said in an October 20 interview with Climate Progress. “They were actively denying the impact of human-caused carbon emissions, even when their own research showed otherwise.”

Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a former prosecutor, has called for a federal investigation. “The revelation that Exxon knew about the link between climate change and carbon pollution as early as 1981 and yet continued to support a decades-long campaign of denial described in the [July] UCS report, strengthens the parallel with the tobacco-industry conduct that led to a civil [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] verdict against tobacco,” Whitehouse told The Nation in July. “Whether [the Justice Department] pursues this or not is their call, but if nothing else, the UCS report shows these are legitimate questions to ask."

Leaving Carbon in the Ground

Aside from the outcome of any legal actions brought against ExxonMobil or other major fossil fuel companies, people are increasingly beginning to discuss what the future holds for these companies in the wake of the Paris climate accord—they may have even more to worry about than their legal culpability for climate disinformation.

A study published in late November by Richard Heede and Naomi Oreskes in Global Environmental Change, and funded in part by UCS, suggests that more attention needs to be paid to major fossil fuel companies’ plans to develop new reserves. The authors find that the world’s 42 largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies (including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell) currently spend an estimated $700 billion per year to identify and develop new fossil fuel reserves. This continued development, the authors contend, risks increasing emissions to a point that would push the global temperature “well past” the newly agreed-upon international limit.

To prevent this outcome, they say, far greater investor and consumer pressure needs to be brought to bear in “dissuading these corporations from further investment in fossil fuel exploration and development,” particularly in the development of oil and gas from tar sands and other high-carbon sources. It’s a subject that UCS will actively address in the months ahead.