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October 19, 2015

Justice Department Urged to Investigate Exxon
    by Robert Kropp

After two reports identify research into global warming by the oil giant as far back as the 1970s, two members of the House of Representatives call on the Justice Department to investigate the corporation for its campaign to deceive the American public about the risks of climate change. -- "With its ideological allies," author Steve Coll wrote in his 2012 book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, "ExxonMobil funded the promotion of public confusion about climate science by means that future employees and executives of the corporation are likely to look back on with regret."

Perhaps the time of reckoning for ExxonMobil has at last arrived: not one but two recently published reports—one by the Los Angeles Times, and the other by InsideClimate News—reveal that since 1977, the corporation's scientists had successfully developed climate change models that accurately predicted the crisis conditions that are already underway.

Sustainable investors often talk about both the risks and opportunities present in corporate attention to climate change; but as the report from the Times highlights, Exxon saw the looming crisis not as encouragement to contribute to a transition away from fossil fuels but as a chance to to expand drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic. In the 1980s, the report states, “With mounting evidence the planet was warming, company scientists...wondered whether climate change might alter the economic equation. Could it make Arctic oil exploration and production easier and cheaper?”

Obviously, to interpret global warming largely brought on by fossil fuel consumption simply as an opportunity to explore for even more fossil fuels would not sit well with a global society forced to endure the effects. So, even as company scientists were producing groundbreaking research into the likely effects of climate change, “Exxon and its worldwide affiliates were crafting a public policy position that sought to downplay the certainty of global warming.”

If anything, the report from InsideClimate News was even more damning. It records an address to top company executives by senior scientist James Black, who concluded (in 1977!), the report states, that “carbon dioxide from the world's use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.”

“There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels," Black told Exxon's Management Committee. And for much of the next decade, Exxon scientists sought to deepen “the company's understanding of an environmental problem that posed an existential threat to the oil business.”

However, “In the decades that followed, Exxon worked instead at the forefront of climate denial,” the report continues. “It put its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.”

Business as usual, in other words, in the starkest sense of the term.

Fortunately, two Democrats in the House of Representatives—Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, both from California—saw Exxon's pattern of research and subsequent funding of climate denial as something other than mere business as usual. In a
letter to the Justice Department, Congressman Lieu wrote, “ExxonMobil's apparent behavior is similar to cigarette companies that repeatedly denied harm from tobacco and spread uncertainty and misleading information to the public.”

Reminding the DoJ of prosecutions of tobacco companies on racketeering charges, Lieu continued, “Exxon took internal actions based on its knowledge of climate change. Yet Exxon funded and publicly engaged in a campaign to deceive the American people about the known risks of fossil fuels in causing climate change.”

“If these allegations against Exxon are true, then Exxon's actions were immoral,” the letter concluded. “We request the DOJ to investigate whether ExxonMobil's actions were also illegal.”

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