Exxon Mobile is facing an investigation by the New York attorney general for potentially misleading statements regarding the oil company’s research on the effects of fossil fuels. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued an order for Exxon Mobile’s financial records, emails and other documents. The goal of the investigation is to determine whether statements released by Exxon misled the public and investors on the risks of climate change.
Exxon, now Exxon Mobile, weakened and may have even denied research projections with the claim that their models were ineffective. InsideClimate News conducted an eight-month investigation into Exxon’s climate research and called for the company to be charged with corporate fraud. Using emails, reports and other files from the company, InsideClimate News revealed the path taken by Exxon as far back as 1989 to cloud the public’s understanding of climate change.
Steve Knisely, an intern at Exxon Research and Engineering, projected that uncontrolled fossil fuel use would lead to “noticeable temperature changes” and 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2010. That was in 1979. Today, climate science shows that Knisely’s predictions were eerily close to the truth: the atmosphere contains 398.55 parts per million in CO2 as of Nov. 6, 2015.
“The potential problem is great and urgent,” Knisely wrote. One of his conclusions was that the fossil fuel industry would need to leave 80 percent of its reserves underground to avoid CO2 emissions. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel formally recognized this idea in 2013 as the “carbon budget.”
The inquiry includes a period of time in the last decade when Exxon Mobile funded a number of other organizations that sought to undermine climate science. Meanwhile, Exxon’s climate researchers were in the midst of outlining various consequences of climate change.
“When I arrived there, I was quite surprised to discover that people in the research lab were very aware of the increase in the growth rate of carbon dioxide measurements in Hawaii [at the Mauna Loa observatory],” Morrel H. Cohen, a senior scientist at Exxon Research from 1981 to 1996, said in a recent interview with InsideClimate News. “They were very aware of the greenhouse effect.”
Exxon’s former chairman and CEO is under great scrutiny for undermining the climate models during a speech before the World Petroleum Congress. InsideClimate News implied the reason for his aggressive disbelief was an attempt to prevent the Kyoto Protocol, an international attempt to reduce emissions.
“Conceptually, it’s little different for me than the law suits against the tobacco industry for covering up the health risks [of smoking],” Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies Frank Alcock said. The link between fossil fuels and climate change is unfortunately not as direct as the effect of a cigarette on a smoker’s lungs, there are levels of complications through which the effects occurs.
Several presidential candidates stood up to support the investigation into Exxon. Hillary Clinton joined candidates such as Bernie Sanders in the call for inquiry shortly after Exxon stopped sponsoring the Clinton Global Initiative.
“There is no doubt that from a public relation and political pressure standpoint these charges can have some impact,” Alcock said. “By calling for an investigation to force Exxon to disclose documents that suggest their levels of awareness is 180 degrees different than what they are proclaiming to the public will undercut heavily their credibility.”
The investigation into Exxon’s potentially misleading presentation of information is unfolding on the eve of a major climate change global summit in December.
“I am not as interested in the blame game as I am interested in the fight about climate change and the link between fossil fuels and climate change is still happening now,” Alcock said.
Information for this article was taken from insideclimatenews.org and nytimes.com