New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman reportedly is investigating whether Exxon Mobil lied to the public - and investors - about what it knew about fossil fuels causing climate change, and some think the probe could expand to include other energy companies as well.
The investigation comes after a series of articles in Inside Climate News, which reported that the company had misled Americans and tried to conceal the connection between fossil fuels and global warming, even though its own scientific research confirmed such a link. The Los Angeles Times published a story in October containing similar allegations.
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In a Sept. 16 article, Inside Climate News reported that Exxon Corporation, which merged with Mobile in 1999, knew as far back as 1977 about the problem. An article describes a meeting that year at the company's headquarters, in which a senior scientist named James F. Black gave a presentation warning that excess carbon dioxide from use of petroleum and other fuels could warm the planet.
The following year, Black reportedly gave another presentation in which he warned that doubling of the atmosphere's CO2 concentration could raise global temperatures by 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit and change precipitation patterns, causing heavier rainfall in some areas and turning others to desert. He reportedly warned that humanity had "a time window of 5 to 10 years" before taking action to curb climate change would become critical.
In an interview yesterday, Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson denied allegations that the company had misled Americans. "The charges are pretty unfounded, without any substance at all, and dealing with a period of time that happened decades ago," Tillerson told Fox Business interviewer Maria Bartiromo. He added that "we were very open during that period of time with all the research we were doing."
Since the allegations have surfaced, a variety of scientists, environmental organizations and politicians have called upon federal authorities to investigate Exxon-Mobil. In an Oct. 30 letter, for example, four congressmen asked Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White to take action to determine whether the company had lied in securities filings.
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But New York state apparently isn't waiting, Schneiderman, who also is helping to defend the Obama administration against a legal challenge to its new restrictions on fossil fuel-burning power plants, reportedly sent a subpoena to Exxon-Mobil's headquarters ordering the company to turn over relevant documents, according to the Associated Press.
Schneiderman has the power to go after the companies because of a broad-ranging anti-fraud statute called the Martin Act. Some violations of the act are felonies, and if Schneiderman could make the case against specific executives, there is at least the theoretical possibility of sending them to prison. However, based upon precedent, the risk of fines seems more likely. In 2003, for example, 10 financial firms were forced to pay a total of $1.4 billion in penalties as the result of allegations that they issued biased stock ratings to lure investment banking business.
Exxon-Mobil earned $9.1 billion in the first half of 2015.