Exxon: Charges of lying about climate change are 'preposterous'

Several states are investigating the company, or considering doing so, for fraud related to knowingly misleading the public and investors about climate change.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/File
A view of the ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas.

ExxonMobil Corp. is fighting a subpoena request by the US Virgin Islands, which is claiming that the oil company could have violated the territory's anti-racketeering law by knowingly misleading the government and the public about the likelihood that its fossil fuel business impacted climate change and thus defrauding them.

But Exxon vehemently opposes the notion that it knew about climate change before the rest of the world did. In a March 29 statement, Suzanne McCarron, Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs, says:

The allegations are based on the false premise that ExxonMobil reached definitive conclusions about anthropogenic climate change before the world’s experts and before the science itself had matured, and then withheld it from the broader scientific community. Such a claim is preposterous. It assumes that the expertise of a handful of Exxon scientists somehow exceeded the accumulated knowledge of the global scientific community at the time, and that the Exxon scientists somehow were able to reach definitive conclusions before the science had developed. It ignores the fact that Exxon’s scientists were fully engaged in the public discussion, openly sharing their findings in peer-reviewed publications and public archives, and actively contributing to the work of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The oil company filed court papers in Texas Wednesday to block the subpoena issued in March by Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Earl Walker, who requested 40 years of company documents related to its climate change research. Mr. Walker is one of several attorneys general investigating Exxon for allegedly covering up and downplaying to the public and its investors its research showing that burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide that traps heat and warms the planet to harmful levels.

Besides the Virgin Islands, states including New York, California, and Massachusetts are tapping – or say they might soon do so – local laws related to securities fraud or violations of racketeering, public health, consumer protection, and shareholder protection, as a basis to investigate Exxon.

In Wednesday's filing, Exxon calls the subpoena from the US Virgin Islands unwarranted and a violation of the company's constitutional rights.

It claims that Walker "issued the subpoena without the reasonable suspicion required by law and based on an ulterior motive to silence those who express views on climate change with which they disagree," reports The Wall Street Journal.

InsideClimate News reports that Exxon will probably not succeed in blocking the subpoena, but that its effort to do so indicates that the company intends to fend off similar requests by other states.  

Exxon has already handed over 10,000 pages of records to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who subpoenaed the company in November for research reports on the causes of global warming and records of Exxon’s funding of climate science and advertising.

“This office has been engaged in a wide-ranging investigation into whether Exxon and others deceived investors and the public regarding the causes and impacts of climate change – including its effect on future profits," a staffer from Mr. Schneiderman’s office recently told The Christian Science Monitor in an e-mail.

States are using a legal strategy like the one used successfully in the 1990s to show that tobacco companies were knowingly endangering public health by hiding what they knew about the addictiveness and health implications of smoking.

"Similar to the Big Tobacco racketeering case 20 years ago, Exxon has knowingly deceived the government, their shareholders, and the American public for decades,” wrote Guido Girgenti, policy campaigner for environmental advocacy organization 350.org in an e-mail to the Monitor.

“The climate denial testimony Exxon gave to Congress, the climate denial reports Exxon sent to the SEC, and the climate denial ads Exxon took out in newspapers are all examples of Exxon’s fraudulent behavior," he says.

In September 2015, InsideClimate News published the results of an eight-month investigation which found that Exxon scientists warned company executives decades ago about human-caused global warming.

But despite its own 40-year-old research that showed that burning fossil fuels released carbon dioxide that was warming the planet to harmful levels, Exxon – the largest oil company in the United States – spent tens of millions of dollars attempting to discredit climate science, the report found.

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