ExxonMobil, the largest U.S. oil and gas company, had better watch out. California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris recently launched an investigation into the company. The reason is simple: ExxonMobil failed to report climate change risks to shareholders and lied to the public about those risks. The Los Angeles Times reported that Exxon’s failures to disclose could “amount to securities fraud and violations of environmental laws.”
California is not the only state to investigate ExxonMobil. In November, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation into the company to determine if it lied to the public or investors about climate change risks. The state’s investigation is focused on statements Exxon made to investors, the New York Times reported.
Reports by various media outlets, including Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, reveal that Exxon incorporated climate change into its plans and practices in the 1980s and 1990s, while publicly casting doubt on climate science. The Inside Climate News report details a shady company that researched climate-related risks starting in the late 1970s and through most of the 1980s, but didn’t inform the public or its investors.
In 1977, a senior company scientist spoke to oilmen at Exxon’s headquarters. The scientist, James F. Black, said: “In the first place, 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.”
Exxon’s response to Black’s warning was to launch its own research into carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. In 1979, Exxon “outfitted a supertanker with custom-made instruments,” Inside Climate News reports. The supertanker, which it spent over $1 million on for over three years, sampled carbon in the air and ocean as it made its way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf. A year later, the company put together a team that investigated carbon emissions and their effect on the climate.
In 1982, Exxon wrote a corporate primer on climate change and carbon emissions. In the primer, the company said dealing with climate change “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion,” Inside Climate News reported. If that didn’t happen “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” the primer stated. Exxon published its results in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and an American Geophysical Union monograph.
Climate science expert James Hansen testified about climate change before Congress in 1988. After that, Exxon began to fund groups that cast doubt on climate change science and was a founding member of the Global Climate Coalition, a group of mostly U.S. businesses that oppose government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A Los Angeles Times investigation found that Exxon gave over $15 million to organizations that cast doubts on climate change from 1998 to 2005. But it wasn’t until 2007 that the company disclosed climate change risks to its shareholders for the first time.
Edward Garvey worked as a scientist from 1978 to 1982 on Exxon’s carbon emissions projects. “There was no questioning that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increasing” and it would have impacts on the climate, he told “Frontline.” He said that at the time Exxon saw an opportunity to lead, and if they had continued in that role there might not be as much climate change denial going on now.
What Exxon’s website says about its actions concerning climate change is in sharp contrast to the various media reports. “ExxonMobil scientists have undertaken climate change research and related policy analysis for 25 years and their work has produced more than 40 papers in peer-reviewed literature,” the company states. What is conveniently left out is the years the company spent funding organizations that marketed climate change denial and the lack of disclosure to shareholders of climate risks until only a few years ago.
Image credit: Flickr/Mike Mozart