The investigation by a handful of attorneys general into ExxonMobil has much more to do with the oil major misleading investors than it does about covering up climate science.
The legal headache stems from several news reports that ExxonMobil buried decades of internal climate science in order to protect its interests. That has environmental groups crying foul, blaming the oil company for decades of policy inaction to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. That also was a key reason that New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, along with several other AGs from different states, opened up an investigation into the company.
But as The New York Times recently noted, Schneiderman emphasizes that the probe is focused on securities fraud, which hinges on recent statements that Exxon has given to shareholders and securities regulators, not on the company’s alleged cover up of climate science decades ago.
Schneiderman’s argument is straightforward: forthcoming policies to address climate change will severely limit Exxon’s ability to produce all of the oil and gas in its possession. Nobody knows this better than Exxon, Schneiderman alleges, since the company has been at the forefront of climate research since at least the 1970s. If Exxon cannot produce all of its oil reserves because they become either legally off limits or so regulated and/or taxed that they are uneconomical to produce, then the company itself is actually worth a lot less than shareholders think. And if Exxon knows this, then they are committing securities fraud, Schneiderman says. “If, collectively, the fossil fuel companies are overstating their assets by trillions of dollars, that’s a big deal,” Schneiderman said, according to the NYT. Related: Chesapeake Making Moves To Recover From The Crash
He is looking at an Exxon report from 2014 in which the company told shareholders that climate action from the U.S. government and the international community would not prevent Exxon from producing oil, even decades into the future.
Exxon dismisses the allegations, saying that if it ends up with so-called “stranded assets,” it will because it simply misjudged changing market conditions, which is not a crime. “If it turns out to be wrong, that’s not fraud, that’s wrong,” said Alan Jeffers, an Exxon spokesman, referring to its 2014 forecast. “That’s why we adjust our outlook every year, and that’s why we issue the annual forecast publicly, so people can know the basis of our forecasting.”
And of course, if the world fails to implement climate policies that might hold back oil production, Exxon might still be able to extract its reserves unencumbered, which means its original forecast was not wrong about the value of its assets.
By Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com
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