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Will The Exxon Ruling Impact Future Climate Cases?

As I explained last month in Exxon Knew. Did They, Though?, perceptions outside of an oil company are often at odds with what is happening inside the company. I provided several examples.

I explained that the things I have seen as an insider frame my opinion of the climate change investigations involving ExxonMobil. To recap, the company is under investigation by several states and was being sued by the state of New York, which charges that the company engaged in “a longstanding fraudulent scheme” on the economic risks of climate change.

It was my expectation that outside perceptions would give way to reality, and that’s what happened. ExxonMobil was found not guilty of fraud in the case.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barry Ostrager’s ruling in favor of ExxonMobil stated in part:

“The Office of the Attorney General failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that ExxonMobil made any material misstatements or omissions about its practices and procedures that misled any reasonable investor.”

This isn’t surprising to me, but the public often conflates certain facts to develop an overall impression of a company. Thus, many felt that it was a no-brainer that ExxonMobil was guilty of the charges. Related: For The First Time Ever, Shell Signs $10B Emissions Linked Financing

As I explained in the previous article, ExxonMobil has funded anti-climate change organizations. But again, that’s not necessarily because they are trying to hide something from the public. Certainly, it would benefit the company to cast doubt on the fact that burning fossil fuels is leading to climate change, but I didn’t think it likely that it would be proven that their motivation was to cover up a smoking gun some felt they held.

Ostrager’s decision echoes that argument:

“Nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases in the production of its fossil fuel products. But ExxonMobil is in the business of producing energy, and this is a securities fraud case, not a climate change case.”

Ultimately, if it was a climate change case, I still think it would be hard to prove in court that ExxonMobil knew the truth and lied to the public. It would also raise the issue of how much responsibility lies with the company that provided the fossil fuels, and how much lies with the consumers who use them.

This decision is probably a sign of the way future cases will be decided.

By Robert Rapier

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