Blair Horner: The Attorney General’s Fight With Exxon Continues

Feb 27, 2017

Recently, a Congressional committee once again took aim at New York State Attorney General Schneiderman and his investigation of oil-giant ExxonMobil.  The action was a subpoena issued by Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas. Representative Smith is the chair of the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  His subpoena is to obtain internal records from the New York State Attorney General’s investigation of ExxonMobil, which may be intended as a way to derail any action.

The AG is contesting that demand.

In 2015, the Attorney General launched an investigation into whether ExxonMobil had deliberately ignored its own research about the dangers of global warming and instead set about a campaign to mislead the public – and investors – about the dangers caused by burning fossil fuels, one of which is oil.

And while the AG’s investigation of possible illegality will play out in the courts, what seems clear is that ExxonMobil used its knowledge of global warming not as a tool to educate the world on the rising dangers to the planet, but instead to confuse the public and muddy the debate.

As recent media investigations have found, the oil industry leader — ExxonMobil — has for decades known of the dangers of global warming and that burning fossil fuels was a key driver in raising global temperatures.

According to corporate documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, a leading Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991 that greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels. Nobody disputes this fact.” The senior Exxon researcher went on to add that there was no doubt those levels would double by the middle of the 21st century.

Yet at the same time, the company was telling its shareholders concerned about climate change that it had studied the science of global warming and concluded it was too murky to warrant action. The company said that its “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.”

Why would a company with well-documented research hide its conclusions and publicly argue the opposite? According to the LA Times, it was that Exxon feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome government policies.

And they succeeded.  So much so that national political figures, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, still argue that global warming is a hoax.  Furthermore, ExxonMobil’s former CEO is now the Secretary of State, and a leading opponent of the science of climate change is now the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency.  And the President says he doesn’t believe in the science either.

Exxon now argues that their internal science led them to make statements that at the time they believed were the truth.  The AG’s investigation may well shed light on the truth of that statement.

But what cannot be ignored is that climate changes are occurring due to global warming – and that such warming is primarily the result of human activity. The world has lost valuable time due to the tactics of the opponents of that scientific fact. As a result, millions worldwide will suffer.

Setting the record straight about what Exxon knew and when it knew it is important to moving forward decisively on climate change in 2017.

But with the nation’s political leaders firmly in the climate denial camp, the country and the world cannot expect action to help mitigate the damage caused by the oil industry’s strategies.  It is up to the states.

Which brings me back to the investigation by the state Attorney General.  It will take action by AG’s like New York’s Eric Schneiderman, Massachusetts AG Maura Healy and others to hold the oil industry to account and hope that those revelations finally break the stranglehold over climate change policies.

New Yorkers want Schneiderman to act.  Last week, over 350 state organizations delivered a letter to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in support of his investigation of ExxonMobil. 

New Yorkers, unlike the Congressional leadership, want action on climate change.  A thorough investigation by the AG could help spur such action.  Time will tell.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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