Exxon Mobil faces legal inquiry on climate misinformation

New York attorney general is investigating whether oil major lied about scientific knowledge, in move with big implications for fossil fuel firms

(Flickr/Mike Mozart)

(Flickr/Mike Mozart)

By Megan Darby

The New York attorney general is investigating Exxon Mobil over claims it deceived the public and investors about climate change.

Eric Schneiderman demanded financial records, emails and other documents from the oil major on Wednesday evening, the New York Times reported.

The inquiry could lead to civil or even criminal charges. Some experts foresee a wave of litigation against the fossil fuel sector similar to that faced by tobacco firms.

It follows a series of articles by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times showing Exxon distorted the climate debate for decades.

While internal modelling in 1982 confirmed the scientific consensus that fossil fuel use causes global warming, the company’s lobbyists sowed doubt on the findings.

The effects are still evident in US discourse today, which has become deeply polarised.

Most Republican presidential candidates continue to dispute human influence on the climate. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, back an investigation into Exxon.

“There’s a lot of evidence they misled,” Clinton told reporters last week.

Sanders went further, writing to US attorney general Loretta Lynch to ask for a federal investigation.

“It appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public, and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts,” he wrote.

As well as affecting America’s willingness to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Exxon’s behaviour had financial implications.

By playing down the climate threat, it may have given shareholders a false impression of the company’s future profitability.

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Coal giant Peabody Energy has also been under investigation by the New York attorney general’s office for two years over its financial disclosures.

Bank of England governor Mark Carney last month warned climate-related litigation posed a threat to financial stability.

Pressure on polluters or negligent companies to pay out “will only increase as the science and evidence of climate change hardens,” he said.

Campaigners in the Netherlands and Pakistan have won legal challenges forcing their governments to take stronger climate action.

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