ExxonMobil‘s nasty habit of climate change denial has been the subject of many a news article for many a year without gaining any traction. The issue recently bubbled up again as reporters focus on emails that detail what the company’s top executives actually knew about climate change — and when they knew it. In any other year you could assume that ExxonMobil will easily shrug off the controversy, just as it has always done.
However, this year is different. This time, ExxonMobil’s emails are giving its critics hard evidence that the company lied to its own investors as well as the public, sparking an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. And there are at least two more factors that should give company executives the jitters.
1. President Obama’s “rhymes with bucket” list
One big difference this year is President Barack Obama’s newly aggressive pursuit of an environmental legacy as he approaches his final year in office. In contrast to the very accommodating “all of the above” energy strategy he pursued for his first seven years in office, the president has come out swinging in favor of renewable energy leading up to critical climate talks in Paris beginning on Nov. 30.
One huge warning sign for ExxonMobil occurred just last Friday, when the president definitively put a stop to the proposed Keystone XL crude oil pipeline. In doing so he turned down a request from the pipeline owner, TransCanada, to suspend the permit process for at least 12 months. That would have let the clock run past his last day in office, effectively letting him off the hook for the decision.
For Obama-watchers, the willingness to take credit for killing the pipeline came as no surprise, especially after last month’s Interior Department announcement that partially banned Arctic oil drilling. Despite facing intense opposition in Congress from the usual suspects, Obama campaigned for his second term with a bucket list of clean energy initiatives in hand, including a major lease initiative for tapping the rich wind energy resources off the Atlantic coast.
You can trace the warning signs even further back. While accepting donations from oil-related individuals, Obama leveraged clean energy during his first campaign, and he singled out ExxonMobil as a symbol for the wrong way to do energy. The magazine Entrepreneur took note of the president’s fraught relationship with ExxonMobil in March 2009, citing this speech:
“I want to be clear,” Obama said shortly after taking office. “We have made our choice: America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes and a warming planet. We will not be put off from action because action is hard. Now is the time to make the tough choices.”
In addition to Schneiderman’s announcement, environmental groups have already put in formal requests for a Justice Department investigation of ExxonMobil’s climate change lies. Given his past and recent history, it’s quite likely that the president will not be content to sit back and let the New York Attorney General do all the work.
2. Collapse of the “energy poverty” argument
ExxonMobil critics often compare the company’s anti-science activities to the war of obfuscation that the U.S. tobacco industry has waged in order to forestall regulation. It’s an apt comparison, given that some of the same lobbying groups — especially the Heartland Institute — have been deeply embedded in both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries.
However, the recent scandal enveloping Volkswagen has provided the public with a clear example of the extent to which a company’s actual practices can completely undercut all of its PR team’s hard work. While Volkswagen attempts to burnish its green image with its “Think Blue” campaign, there is ample evidence that the company lied to hundreds of thousands of car buyers about its supposedly “clean” diesel engine emissions.
In that context, consider the “energy poverty” argument that ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has adopted in recent years. Casting his company as a white knight bringing light to emerging economies, he recently put forth this line for ExxonMobil shareholders to grab:
“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
ExxonMobil’s 2012 Corporate Citizen Report expands on the salvation-from-energy-poverty theme, emphasizing the unique power of fossil fuels to literally save lives:
“In the coming decades, society will continue to face complex challenges related to a growing world population, economic growth, climate change, food security and public health … We must recognize that none of the challenges we face can be addressed without reliable and affordable access to energy. Energy powers our offices and schools. It runs life-saving medical equipment and operating rooms. It manufactures vaccines and transports medical personnel.”
That line of reasoning may have helped the company slip by its critics in the past, but it is quickly collapsing as scientists begin to establish firm evidence linking climate change to drought, extreme weather events and other sources of increased human misery, many of which have the worst impacts among the vulnerable populations that ExxonMobil purports to save.
As of this writing, ExxonMobil has yet to respond to a subpoena issued by Schneiderman, asking for financial records, as well as emails and other documents, so stay tuned.
Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via whitehouse.gov