According to the New York Times, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has opened a “sweeping investigation” into public statements made by ExxonMobil since the 1970s on the risks climate change posed to the public and to investors in the oil industry.
The investigation comes as a major victory at a critical time: World leaders will be meeting later this month in Paris to negotiate the first-ever global climate agreement, and the urgency of the issue is playing an important role in the Democratic presidential primary. The attention on Exxon, in particular, comes after separate high-profile, months-long investigative reports recently revealed that Exxon scientists have long known the inherent risks involved in burning fossil fuel, yet hid their results from public view for years while funding groups that denied climate change.
The Times says the New York case “may well open a sweeping new legal front in the battle over climate change,” adding that “attorneys general for other states could join in Mr. Schneiderman’s efforts, bringing far greater investigative and legal resources to bear on the issue.”
The New York case has already been compared to the bi-partisan public investigations into the cancer research that tobacco companies conducted, then hid, several decades ago, though there are many differences. For one, it’s difficult to imagine Republican elected officials aggressively pursuing Exxon when they’ve made opposition to action on climate change a core platform issue.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted that if the allegations that “Exxon lied about climate change to protect their profits” are true, then “they broke the law.” Last month, Sanders called for a federal investigation into the matter. A few days later, Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential contender, joined him, saying “there’s a lot of evidence they misled.”
In a press release responding to the reports, Ken Cohen, an Exxon vice president, said “we recognize that our past participation in broad coalitions that opposed ineffective climate policies subjects us to criticism.” Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, speaking on Wednesday for the first time about the allegations, denied the company had misled the public, saying “I really don’t want this to be a distraction.”
In recent months, Exxon has publicly supported limited climate action, though this support is likely strategic rather than altruistic: An economy-wide tax on carbon emissions, for example, would preferentially benefit oil and gas companies whose emissions per unit of energy are lower than coal companies.
The Times report also reveals that Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, is currently under investigation by New York State for similar reasons.
Earlier this year, a first-of-its-kind study showed that in order for the world to meet targets that would limit the worst impacts of climate change, the majority of already-discovered fossil fuels would have to remain in the ground.