Oil companies have long been accused of secretly funding opposition to action on climate change. A pair of new reports, though, have raised the prospect that ExxonMobil understood the damage of man-made fossil fuels long ago and ignored its own climate research in possible violation of federal law. The revelations inspired presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to call for a federal probe of the company on Tuesday.
Over the last few weeks, separate months-long reporting projects by the nonprofit InsideClimate News and by a collaborating team from Columbia University and the Los Angeles Times have revealed new information about what the energy company knew about climate change and when it knew it. The reports state that starting as early as 1977—more than a decade before former NASA scientist James Hansen’s famous Senate testimony that first brought widespread public attention to climate change—scientists at Exxon had discovered their product contributed to the problem in a big way, and hid the results from public view.
Sen. Sanders sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Tuesday citing the reports and calling for a federal investigation. At issue is whether Exxon and other oil companies may have worked together for decades to deliberately mislead the public of the dangers posed by climate change and fossil fuel burning.
“These reports, if true, raise serious allegations of a misinformation campaign that may have caused public harm similar to the tobacco industry’s actions,” Sanders wrote. “Based on available public information, it appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse.”
The two journalistic teams used internal company documents dating back to the late 1970s as well as interviews with former employees to show that while Exxon’s own scientists were at the forefront of scientific understanding of the potentially severe impacts of global warming—performing some of the original research, in many cases—its executives chose to fund a public relations campaign to play down the connection to human activities. The Times story focuses on how the company used this scientific knowledge to plan its activities in the Arctic, including to measure the impact of melting permafrost on its pipelines.
It was the latest report from the Times and Columbia, released earlier this month, that seemed to spark a sense of urgency for those wanting to examine possible wrongdoing on Exxon’s part. When the Times story broke earlier this month, environmentalist and long-time activist Bill McKibben said no other story has made him as angry in his 28-year career. “No corporation has ever done anything this big and this bad,” he wrote in the Guardian. Late last week, McKibben was arrested at an Exxon station in Burlington, Vermont in a one-man protest designed to draw attention to the reporting.
A follow-up from InsideClimate News showed several legal avenues potentially available to federal prosecutors, including the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that was successfully used against the tobacco industry in the 1990s. A similar effort against the fossil fuel industry could force them, in theory, to pay a share of global climate change damages, though a federal probe would likely require bi-partisan support in Congress.
The Exxon allegations could also prove to be a wedge issue in the Democratic presidential primaries, where Sanders is currently mounting an upstart campaign against frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Lee Fang, an investigative journalist with the Intercept, tweeted on Tuesday that top Clinton fundraisers also lobby for Exxon. Clinton hasn’t yet called for an investigation into Exxon’s climate science activities