Did Exxon Mobil mislead the public about global warming?

Several attorneys general are investigating oil giant Exxon Mobil, even as the Rockefeller Family Fund cuts its ties with the fossil fuel company.

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

American oil and gas corporation Exxon Mobil is under investigation by the Attorneys General of several US states and territories for its alleged attempts to mislead investors and the public about climate change.

The coalition announced their intentions Tuesday at a conference attended by Attorneys General from California, Illinois, Iowa, the US Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. The conference was led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and co-sponsored by Vermont’s Attorney General William Sorrell.

"We’ve gathered here today for a conference, a first-of-its-kind conference of Attorneys General dedicated to coming up with creative ways to enforce laws being flouted by the fossil fuel industry and their allies," said Mr. Schneiderman, "in their short-sighted efforts to put profits above the interests of the American people and the integrity of the financial markets."

Accusations that Exxon Mobil had misled investors and others drew attention last fall, after the the Los Angeles Times published an exposé on Exxon’s knowledge and disavowal of climate change.

Schneiderman’s office subpoenaed Exxon Mobil in November for climate change documents dating back to the 1970s. A Schneiderman staffer told The Christian Science Monitor by e-mail that the requested documents include Exxon Mobil reports on the causes and consequences of global climate change, as well as reports on the company’s funding for climate science investigation 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," the staffer told the Monitor by e-mail. "The disclosures and statements we are looking at range from 1977 up to this day."

Schneiderman has approached similar investigations before, securing an agreement to "end misleading statements" by Peabody Energy last November.

Exxon Mobil has been under fire for claiming that its scientists could find no "definitive" proof of global warming, while at the same time preparing its business strategy to exploit oil and natural gas resources uncovered by melting polar ice caps.

Schneiderman's office decided to investigate Exxon due to the company's "misleading business practices" that violate state law, explained one official by email:

"We believe the Exxon subpoena is justified by 3 areas of NY State law: general business law against persistent illegality; consumer protection law against fraudulent and misleading business practices; and the Martin Act, NY’s law against fraud in the area of securities."

Exxon Mobil has taken measures to respond to accusations that it covered up climate change information.

The company website now features a prominent section on Exxon’s climate change policy, stating, "The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action. Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect."

Exxon Mobil is refusing to go down without a fight. Suzanne McCarron, vice president of public and government affairs, issued a statement that Exxon Mobil scientists were truly unsure whether or not climate change was a certainty, and that the company remains dedicated to combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Nevertheless, Exxon Mobil’s hazy history on climate change has persuaded some high profile investors to divest their shares in the company.

The Rockefeller name has been linked with the oil and natural gas industry since the 19th century, when the family grew wealthy through investment in Standard Oil.

More recently, some Rockefeller heirs have made the very public decision to abandon the company that made their family’s fortune. In February, Neva Rockefeller Goodwin wrote a Los Angeles Times opinion piece about her decision to donate her Exxon Mobil stocks to charity as a matter of conscience.

Beyond the moral implications of supporting an industry that contributes to climate change, Ms. Goodwin wrote, it made little financial sense to continue to support an industry that will soon be "Public Enemy No. 1," ahead of longstanding public nemesis Big Tobacco.

In addition, the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF) issued a statement last month listing both the moral and financial reasons to drop their investments in Exxon.

"There is no sane rationale for companies to continue to explore for new sources of hydrocarbons," said the RFF in a statement. "The science and intent enunciated by the Paris agreement cannot be more clear: far from finding additional sources of fossil fuels, we must keep most of the already discovered reserves in the ground if there is any hope for human and natural ecosystems to survive and thrive in the decades ahead."

"History moves on," the Rockefellers stated through the RFF, "as it must."

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