The Case Against Exxon Is Growing, and so Is the List of Suspects

by Brian Johnson

January 25, 2016

The movement to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their decades of climate change cover-ups scored another major advance last week, when news came out that the Attorney General of California will be launching an investigation into ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil Banner

A Greenpeace banner flies over the skyline of Dallas, Texas on Thursday, December 3, 2015. The banner reads "Exxon: Time to pay for climate lies" and "Prosecute Exxon".

© Ron Heflin/Greenpeace

Here’s what the latest news means for Exxon, why the rest of the fossil fuel industry should be worried, and how you can take action.

Where Things Stand

The California investigation will look into whether Exxon lied to the public and investors about what it knew about climate change, and whether the company violated certain environmental laws. The investigation follows reports that Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change going back to the 1970s, but instead promoted doubt about the science behind it.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has not officially announced the investigation, but sources close to her have confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that the investigation is going forward.

The news from California marks the second climate-related inquest launched against Exxon in the past few months. In November, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office would investigate Exxon for similar potential violations.

Exxon has now submitted thousands of its documents to Schneiderman’s office as part of a subpoena. In both the California and New York investigations, lies or misleading statements about climate change could amount to financial fraud, as investors may have viewed Exxon differently if the company had not minimized the seriousness of climate change.

Attorney General Schneiderman joined people around the world in celebrating the California investigation, and called climate change “the defining issue of our time.” He also made an important allusion:

“Just like any other publicly traded company, these energy giants have an obligation to ensure that their disclosures to investors of known and reasonably likely risks are truthful and not misleading, and to disclose to the public the risks associated with their products.”

By “energy giants,” Schneiderman means Exxon and other fossil fuel companies. In fact, sources close to the New York investigation told the New York Times that Schneiderman’s office is considering expanding the case to include other oil companies.

The case for that expansion is strong, and has only gotten stronger since the New York case was launched.

The Widening Spotlight

In December, news came out that ExxonMobil wasn’t the only company that has known about climate change since the 1970s. Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Phillips, Texaco, Sunoco, Amoco and the predecessor companies of Chevron all met from 1979 to 1983 to exchange research about climate change.

Documents from the meetings show that the fossil fuel industry knew climate change was a threat and even considered taking steps to deal with the problem. The meetings were organized by the industry’s trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, which still exists today.

But these meetings weren’t the only times fossil fuel companies admitted to themselves that climate change was a problem. And it didn’t stop the industry from quieting public concern.

A 1995 internal memo by the “Global Climate Coalition” — whose members included BP, Chevron, Shell, Exxon and Mobil — stated that the “greenhouse effect … is well established and cannot be denied.” That fact didn’t stop the coalition, however, from hiring speakers to sow doubt about climate change. The coalition disbanded in 2002, declaring victory after the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol.

In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute collaborated on a communications plan to sow doubt about the science of climate change. The plan suggested that fossil fuel companies “identify, recruit and train a team of five independent scientists” to push views contrary to the general consensus that climate change was real. Both Exxon and Chevron participated in the plan.

And industry denialism continued under Willie Soon, an astrophysicist (not climatologist) who received money from Exxon, ExxonMobil, Texaco, and the American Petroleum Institute throughout the 1990s and 2000s to produce studies. Soon’s ‘research’ concluded that the sun, not human emission, drives global warming.

Today, ExxonMobil and Chevron remain members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (aka ALEC), a corporate lobbying group that has lost members like Google because of its ongoing denial of climate change.

What Now?

Altogether, the picture for fossil fuel companies is beginning to look a lot like the fall of tobacco industry in the 1990s and 2000s.

Under that legal movement, the tobacco industry settled with 46 states to hand over hundreds of billions of dollars for public health, anti-smoking campaigns, and policy initiatives. The federal Department of Justice launched a fraud and racketeering lawsuit against the industry, winning the case in 2006.

The DOJ has yet to launch its own case against Exxon or any other fossil fuel company. That’s why we need you, right now, to sign our petition calling on the DOJ to join forces with the Attorneys General of California and New York and expand the case against Exxon to the entire fossil fuel industry.

The record shows that the fossil fuel companies won’t stop their dirty ways unless they are held legally accountable. This case is growing and we can make it bigger. Sign the petition today.

See here for a more detailed timeline of why Exxon and the rest of the fossil fuel industry should be investigated.

Brian Johnson

By Brian Johnson

Brian is a campaigner with Greenpeace's Climate and Energy Team. Follow him @BFWJohnson.

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