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The investigatory microscope has been focused on Exxon Mobil Corp. since last summer, beginning with a group of journalism students working in tandem with the Los Angeles Times. Their reporting led New York to mount its own investigation, and now California is joining the probe and a member of Congress is urging the federal government to get involved.
At issue is whether Exxon relied on climate-change research to help guide its business planning, privately recognizing the dangers that the company’s activities posed to the environment while publicly brushing aside such concerns with the argument, still used today, that climate science is ambiguous.
This was the subject of articles written by the Columbia University Energy and Environmental Reporting Fellowship, published in association with the L.A. Times. A series of stories based on their reporting was also issued by the non-profit website InsideClimate News. Related: Oil Stages Rebound From Twelve Year Lows
Last fall, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began a state investigation into these reports, focusing on whether Exxon lied to the public – and, more to the point, its investors – about how the oil companies’ practices may hurt their ability to make profits. Now the L.A. Times reports that California Attorney General Kamala Harris is mounting a parallel probe.
Now, maybe, it’s time for other states and even the federal government to step in, says Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat. He said he’s written to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and to the Securities and Exchange Commission urging them to look into the reports suggesting that Exxon may be guilty of breaking other laws including securities fraud and violating other laws to protect consumers and investors.
Further, Lieu said he hopes Harris’ decision will encourage additional investigations, given that California has the eighth-largest economy in the world. “I think this action will be taken very seriously by Exxon Mobil,” he said. Related: Goldman Sachs Sees Oil Markets Turning Bullish Soon
A spokesman for Harris had no comment and declined even to confirm that she had begun an investigation.
Exxon had no immediate reaction to the report of the California investigation, but previously it has condemned the news reports’ assertions that it tried to play down the impact of fossil fuels on the Earth’s climate.
“The facts are that we identified the potential risks of climate change and have taken the issue very seriously,” chief Exxon spokesman Kenneth Cohen said in a statement in October. “Activists deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various company employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers.” Related: OPEC At Peak Production
And in a Nov. 20 letter to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, Cohen accused the journalism students and their instructor of major ethical lapses. In response, Steve Coll, the dean of the university’s Graduate School of Journalism, said Cohen’s “allegations are unsupported by evidence.”
“More than that, I have been troubled to discover that you have made serious allegations of professional misconduct in your letter against members of the project team even though you or your Media Relations colleagues possess email records showing that your allegations are false,” Coll wrote.
An important tool for the New York investigation is the state’s Martin Act, which empowers the attorney general to prosecute any companies operating in New York that are suspected of financial fraud. It doesn’t require prosecutors to prove that a company intended to defraud, only that its information was inaccurate or not disclosed.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com