Environmental and Civil Rights Groups Urge Federal Probe of Exxon

Nearly 50 diverse organizations, ranging from green groups to indigenous people’s networks, call for an inquiry into what Exxon knew about climate change.

A coalition of environmental, civil rights and indigenous people's groups urged the Justice Department Thursday to investigate ExxonMobil. Credit: 350.org

A coalition of nearly 50 environmental, civil rights and indigenous people's groups sent a letter Friday to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch urging her to launch a federal investigation into whether ExxonMobil purposefully misled the American people on climate change.

The organizations cite reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that shows Exxon "knew about the dangers of climate change even as it funded efforts at climate denial and systematically misled the public," the letter said.

"Given the damage that has already occurred from climate change—particularly in the poorest communities of our nation and our planet—and that will certainly occur going forward, these revelations should be viewed with the utmost apprehension."

Members of the new coalition represent a diverse array of interests: 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, Interfaith Power and Light, the Indigenous Environmental Network, hedge fund manager-turned-climate activist Tom Steyer, Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen and the Foundation of Women in Hip Hop, among many others.

"Some of us were worried that as remarkable as these revelations are from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times, a kind of cynicism might help sink them beneath the static of the digital culture," 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben, who helped organize the letter, said in an email. "People might just sigh and say 'of course they knew and of course they lied.' But in fact people are pissed off. Many of the people signing that letter have spent 10 or 20 or 25 years having to fight an entirely phony debate around the reality of climate change instead of getting to work on the solutions we desperately need. And as we now know, that's largely Exxon's fault."

The coalition joins a growing community of politicians and citizen groups calling for the Justice Department to investigate ExxonMobil for sowing doubt about climate change after the company's own scientists had confirmed and accepted the role of fossil fuels in global warming.

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton voiced support for a Department of Justice investigation after a town hall campaign event in Berlin, N.H. on Thursday. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sent a letter to Lynch earlier this month asking for a task force to investigate Exxon. Governor Martin O'Malley voiced his support for an investigation on Twitter.

Calls for action have also come from Congress. Four Democratic Senators, led by Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, sent a letter to Exxon Thursday asking whether the company funneled donations to climate denial groups through a financial clearinghouse after it said it had stopped funding the organizations directly. Two California congressmen—Democratic representatives Mark DeSaulnier and Ted Lieu—also asked for a federal investigation earlier this month.

The politicians and the new coalition want the Justice Department look into whether Exxon violated the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law, which federal officials used to prosecute tobacco companies in the 1990s for lying about what they knew about the health impacts of smoking.

The revelations by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times "are reminiscent—though potentially much greater in scale—than similar revelations about the tobacco industry," the letter said.

"These journalists have provided a remarkable roadmap to this corporation's potential misconduct. We would ask that you follow that map wherever it may lead, employing all the tools at your disposal to uncover the truth," it said.

Click to read the full letter.

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