Exxon Mobil under fire: Did energy giant withhold climate research?

Law enforcement in New York State is investigating Exxon Mobil and coal company Peabody Corp for concealing financial risks associated with climate change.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/File
The Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas, Sept. 15, 2008. The New York attorney general has launched an investigation into whether Exxon Mobil Corp misled the public about the risks of climate change or its investors about how those risks may hurt the company's oil business.

In a new wrinkle to the revelation that Exxon Mobil knew about global warming for about 40 years, New York State’s attorney general is now investigating the company and others to ascertain whether they misled investors on climate change’s causes and ramifications.

After a yearlong examination of shareholder disclosures, a subpoena was sent to Dallas-based Exxon Mobil on Wednesday. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is conducting a similar investigation into St. Louis-based coal company Peabody Energy Corp.

Scott Silvestri, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said the company repudiates any accusations that it concealed research. He said for years, ExxonMobil has provided shareholders with information regarding the financial risk posed by climate change.

He pointed to "Exxon Mobil's nearly 40-year history of climate research that was conducted publicly in conjunction with the Department of Energy, academics and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

"Exxon Mobil recognizes that climate risks are real and responsible actions are warranted," said company vice president Kenneth Cohen on Thursday during a conference call with reporters.

"Beginning in the last decade, we've informed shareholders and investors on our perception of the business risks associated with climate change through regulatory filings, our annual corporate citizenship report and in other reports to shareholders," he added.

According to The New York Times, the attorney general has been investigating Peabody for two years to determine whether it appropriately shared potential financial risks posed by climate change, but no legal action has been taken against the company.  

InsideClimate News, a nonprofit publication, discovered documents showing Exxon realized as far back as the late 1970’s that the company’s own existence was vulnerable to climate change. Later, company researchers confirmed that burning fossil fuels and doubling carbon dioxide emissions would warm the Earth, the documents show.  

The new revelation was first reported by The New York Times on Thursday, which found parallels between the tobacco and fossil fuel industry. Some experts said there is a potential for an all-out legal assault on fossil fuel companies like the kind against big tobacco in past decades, which has cost the industry tens of billions of dollars in penalties. During the 1950’s and ‘60s, tobacco companies knew about the harmful and addictive nature of cigarettes, but publicly defended the safety of their products and even funded research later found to be questionable. Several companies were found guilty of the scheme in 2006.

But, as the Times notes, the history at Exxon Mobil seems different, as the company has published extensive research for decades in the same vein as mainstream climatology. So any fraud prosecution would depend on what role executives may have had in climate denial campaigns.

“Unless they directly lied in Congress, the legal case against them is kind of thin,” Hal Harvey, chief of energy consultancy Energy Innovation, told the Times. But he also said companies “have walked away from being a credible spokesman on science.”

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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