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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Other Energy Companies Accused Of Downplaying Climate Change

Other Energy Companies Accused Of Downplaying Climate Change

A growing number of energy companies could come under increased scrutiny over their involvement in funding science and public relations campaigns denying the risks of climate change.

The New York attorney general made news a few weeks ago when he announced an investigation into oil major ExxonMobil for its alleged cover up of climate science. The investigation is looking into the possibility that ExxonMobil funded and gathered hard science on climate change, and once coming to the inevitable conclusion that the burning of fossil fuels could lead to regulatory blowback, the oil major proceeded to bury the conclusions and instead fund climate-denying science to obfuscate and head off political action.

While the news could yet blow up into a significant scandal, for now it is too early to tell what the outcome could be. However, more companies could come under fire from a growing number of attorneys general over their involvement in similar practices. After all, ExxonMobil is only the largest in a long line of companies that have pushed back against climate change policy. Related: Big Oil: Which Are The Top 10 Biggest Oil Companies?

The money flowing from energy companies to anti-climate change think tanks and lobbying organizations is relatively well known, and the links between the two are not hard to find. Donations to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for example, is one of the more infamous relationships between oil and climate change lobbying. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) says that ExxonMobil has donated at least $1.7 million to ALEC between 1998 and 2014, a figure that CMD says is conservative. ALEC, in turn, pushed a legislative agenda to cloud the science on climate change, lobbying lawmakers across the U.S. and sowing doubts about the science of climate change.

European oil companies have taken a more proactive stance on addressing climate change. In October, for example, 10 large oil companies including BP, Shell, and Total, signed a joint letter stating their support for UN action on climate change.

To be sure, there is a big question about whether or not the New York attorney general can actually convict the oil company of a crime. Unlike the tobacco industry – a criminal case often cited as similar – it may be more difficult to prove that the energy industry directly violated the law. Related: Oil Prices Down As Storage Keeps On Filling Up

A new report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tries to put hard evidence to the fact that money from oil companies directly led to climate-denying scientific research. Using quantitative analysis, studying reports from anti-climate change organizations over 20 years, researcher Justin Farrell illustrates an “ecosystem of influence” that contributed to public confusion over climate change. Organizations that received funding from oil companies were more likely to publish papers clouding the science on climate change. In other words, the study points the finger directly at the energy industry for its role in misleading the public.

Again, it is hard to say how that will actually play out from a legal standpoint. ExxonMobil denies any wrongdoing.

But it wasn’t alone, and whether or not the attorney general has a strong case, dozens of other companies could also come under fire for similar action. Related: Why The Future For Energy Storage Just Got Brighter

As the world steps up efforts to tackle climate change, we could be witnessing the beginning of a trend towards greater political and legal scrutiny on the energy industry for its role in slowing action on climate change.

The legal route is merely one element of a growing political tide moving against the energy industry. Just a few weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama set a precedent by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline on climate change grounds. By all accounts, he only reached that decision after strong and persistent protest by environmental groups. Politico reported that the Koch brothers have setup an intelligence network to spy on leftist groups, in order not to be outmaneuvered again. The “Koch Intelligence Agency,” as Politico describes it, illustrates the energy industry’s rising concern over political threats.

And the international community is kicking off the Paris climate change talks this week. While few expect a landmark agreement, the momentum behind international action to crack down on carbon emissions is stronger than it was in Copenhagen in 2009. Even if no deal is reached, more regulatory action on carbon emissions can be expected in the coming years.


Obviously, oil, gas, and coal companies are not going away (at least those not near bankruptcy), but low prices are not the only existential threat facing the industry. The political movement to act on climate change is picking up steam, and the legal case against ExxonMobil perfectly illustrates that growing threat.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Lee James on November 29 2015 said:
    We simply need to pay more of the cost for burning fossil fuel in the present day--not ignore health, and clean air and water costs. Fossil fuel should be priced somewhat higher than it is today, while building-in some protection for poor people.
  • Jim Decker on November 29 2015 said:
    This is a truly bizarre article. The assumption is that AGW is real and likely to end life on Earth. Any contrary opinion is a heinous crime against humanity. It refers to a $100,000 per year donation by Exxon as "infamous". 1984 has arrived.

    The reality is that AGW is a fraud. The fraud is being subsidized by billions of tax payer dollars every year. If these fraudsters get their way, the entire Earth's population will suffer greatly for no reason. That is the "infamous" crime against humanity.
  • gharrell on November 30 2015 said:
    Let me be frank, yes the planet has warmed and cooled for thousands of years and will continue to do so. The reason the president has stated that climate change is a greater threat to our country than terrorism is that climate change offers the possibility of wealth redistribution. Wealth redistribution has been a stated goal of his since his first election. It's really simple. Climate change is grand enough to scare the masses and warrants a "carbon tax" paid to the government. Typically this money will come from a capitalist right leaning company. Then the government will lend it to a renewable energy company i.e. Solandra then Solandra makes several donations to fund liberal politicians and liberal causes then declares bankruptcy. That is the definition of wealth redistribution. The end result is the poor stay poor, the climate still changes as it always has and the liberal politicians have more money for elections. Climate change is the perfect vehicle to redistribute wealth and therein lies Obama's incessant drive to get this done before his last term ends.

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