When did ExxonMobil know about fossil fuels and global warming?

Four Congressmen wrote to the SEC Friday, asking the commission to investigate possible discrepancies between Exxon's internal knowledge and its subsequent external denial of climate change, as charged in recent media reports.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
A view of the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas in this file photo from September 15, 2008.

Four Congressmen asked the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest oil companies, suggesting the company knew about climate change and failed to disclose the associated risks associated with their business. 

In a Friday letter to SEC Chair Rep. Ted W. Lieu (D) of Calif.; Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D) of Mass.; Rep. Peter Welch (D), of Vt.; and Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D) of Penn., asked the committee to examine ExxonMobil’s knowledge of anthropogenic climate change as far back as 1977. As a publicly traded company, ExxonMobil must follow SEC “disclosure requirements as they apply to business or legal developments relating to the issue of climate change,” for the benefit of their investors. 

"What Exxon did here is not okay," Eric Pooley, a senior vice president at the Environment Defense Fund, told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "This company is so wealthy, and so powerful, that we are not going to get all the facts unless someone with investigative authority looks at this."

As of press time, Exxon had not responded to this reporter's request for an interview.

“Companies need to be held accountable if they massively defraud the public. This is owed to the American people and to shareholders. It is also the law,” Representative Lieu told InsideClimate News in an email. “There has been enough evidence uncovered in the media reports to warrant an SEC investigation to see if ExxonMobil violated securities laws.”

Lieu is referring to recent reports by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that uncover conflicting accounts of the company’s early knowledge regarding climate change. 

While publicly discrediting climate science, engineers at the company were quietly incorporating climate-change predictions into their business models, suggesting a “gap between Exxon Mobil’s public position and its internal planning on the issue of climate change,” according to the Times. After several internal studies during the 1980s suggested “climate implications of increased CO2 emissions” would impact the company’s fossil-fuel development, ExxonMobil conducted climate research alongside university and government scientists.

"We knew they spent tens of millions spreading doubt and confusion. We knew that part," Mr. Pooley told the Monitor. "What we didn't know was that climate scientists had been briefing executives on the reality of climate change for years. The executives were making decisions about Arctic exploration from cost-benefit analyses, assuming the reality of climate change." 

Between 1991 and 2001, Exxon released varying statements to shareholders. The company gradually progressed from reporting little scientific evidence of climate change to considering potential significant impacts, but all material risks disclosed by the company related to climate change were weak compared to their actual internal investigations.

“It turns out Exxon didn’t just ‘know’ about climate change: it conducted some of the original research,” Bill McKibbin, an American environmentalist and founder of the climate activism group 350.org, writes in The New Yorker. As early as 1977, an Exxon senior scientist named James Black says he informed the company’s management of a “general scientific agreement” regarding man-made CO2 and a corresponding greenhouse effect. 

In recent decades, “Exxon instead focused on casting doubt on global warming warnings” and spending over $1 million on climate-denial groups in 2014 alone, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Since 1998, Exxon has spent over $22 million on climate change denial, reports Greenpeace through their Exxon Secrets website, which provides an interactive map of funding between key organizations, scientists, and Exxon executives.

Within the past week, all three Democratic presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, have called on the Department of Justice to investigate related accusations against Exxon. 

"The 20 years that have been lost while we debate whether climate change was real or not? That didn't have to happen," says Pooley. "They had the opportunity to tell the world the truth, but instead they went the other way to mislead the public."

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