Post-Election, ExxonMobil Goes After Scientists and Climate Advocates

November 16, 2016 | 8:16 pm
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

Major fossil fuel companies that are determined to defend their profits at all costs, including the health and well-being of the people of this planet, can only be emboldened by the results of last week’s US elections.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when a subpoena from ExxonMobil arrived at our door the day after the election—an attempt to pull us in to the company’s lawsuit against the Massachusetts attorney general, who has joined the New York attorney general in investigating whether the company broke any laws by misleading investors and consumers about climate change.

Exposing climate deception: We are having an impact

Clearly our work to expose the climate deception of ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies is having an impact.

Recent investigations by UCS, InsideClimate News, and the LA Times, among others, have uncovered  documents showing that ExxonMobil scientists knew about climate change and its global risks by the late 1970s and possibly even the 1960s.

The company appears to have been at the cutting edge of climate research, and yet chose to wage a decades-long disinformation campaign rather than warn the public and its own investors of climate change risks. Several state attorneys general have launched investigations into whether or not these actions constitute fraud.

The election helps fossil fuel interests

The election of a president who appears to place the fossil fuel industry’s interests above other national priorities couldn’t have come at a better time for ExxonMobil—a welcome distraction following a spate of troubling financial news for the world’s largest investor-owned fossil fuel company.

And ExxonMobil wasted no time in stepping up its offensive against investigations into whether the company broke any laws by misleading investors and consumers about climate change. In short order, ExxonMobil delivered a one-two-three punch:

  • The company is working to depose at least 17 state attorneys general and their staff who came together in March of this year to advance key climate change-related initiatives.
  • The company filed a lawsuit against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, adding him to its previous complaint seeking to block Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s investigation into potential fraud by ExxonMobil.
  • Now ExxonMobil is pulling UCS into its attack. Having previously delivered a document preservation request, the company has served us with a subpoena for documents relevant to its litigation against the attorneys general.

The question now is how hard each of these punches will land.

Following the presidential election, an ExxonMobil spokesperson told Reuters that the company hopes Donald Trump’s administration would use “sound science” on future regulations. We agree.

As my colleague Peter Frumhoff explained in a blog earlier this year, UCS is committed to ensuring that policies and actions by public officials—from the president and Congress to state attorneys general and beyond—are grounded in the best available science.

And the best available science can only lead to one conclusion: we need a rapid transition away from burning fossil fuels.

Part of my job is to analyze the climate-related positions and actions of major fossil fuel producers—and ExxonMobil, in many areas, falls far short of emerging societal expectations.

ExxonMobil cannot escape global momentum for climate action

While ExxonMobil may be emboldened by this election outcome, the momentum is not in the company’s favor. UCS is not alone in pressuring ExxonMobil to stop spreading climate disinformation, fully disclose climate risks, and align its business model with a carbon-constrained world.

  • A class action lawsuit alleging securities violations by ExxonMobil has recently been filed on behalf of the company’s shareholders. The complaint charges that the company made materially false and misleading statements regarding climate risks and the value of its oil and gas reserves.
  • The international climate agreement reached in Paris last year took effect earlier this month. Welcoming its swift entry into force, several of ExxonMobil’s competitors announced a new initiative “to invest one billion dollars over the next decade to accelerate the development of innovative technologies that, once commercialized, have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a significant scale.” (It remains to be seen what role this $1 billion can play in catalyzing swift and deep reductions in heat-trapping emissions, and the omission of renewable energy from the investment priorities set by these oil and gas companies should raise some eyebrows.)

For its part, ExxonMobil stated that it “supports the work of the Paris signatories, acknowledges the ambitious goals of this agreement and believes the company has a constructive role to play in developing solutions.”

While it is noteworthy that ExxonMobil apparently considered it necessary to “acknowledge” that the world has decided to move forward aggressively on climate action, the company stopped short of saying it agreed with or would work toward the goal of keeping warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

As a global corporation, ExxonMobil recognizes the policy and market momentum toward a clean energy economy. But the company cannot have its cake and eat it, too.

If ExxonMobil really wants to play a role in developing solutions to climate change, it should stop supporting efforts to confuse the public and articulate how it plans to develop its business model.

Dragging UCS into its court battle with state attorneys general does not send a signal that the company is ready to apply its considerable resources to defining how it can contribute positively in a world free from carbon pollution.