Subpoena Power: Exxon’s Climate Scandal Now Under a Spotlight

An InsideClimate News investigation revealed the depth of the company's climate duplicity, but a subpoena got everyone's attention.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office seek documents on what Exxon knew about climate change and what it told shareholders and the public. In the picture above, Schneiderman is on the right and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is on the left. (Credit: citizenactionny via Wikipedia)

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Updated 1:56 PM on Nov. 9 to include new comments.

After it was revealed that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office is investigating what oil giant ExxonMobil knew about climate change compared to what it told the public and investors, reaction poured in quickly. Politicians, legal and policy experts, industry analysts and environmentalists weighed in on the news and the InsideClimate News investigation that helped bring the topic to light.

The 18-page subpoena delivered by Schneiderman’s staff to the oil company to hand over its climate-related documents and communications came just weeks after InsideClimate News published its investigation into Exxon’s climate research as far back as  the 1970s and how it eventually chose instead to sow doubt about that very science by funding denial groups. The Los Angeles Times published a separate investigation that came to the same conclusions.

Dozens of major news publications have reported on the Attorney General’s actions—including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Fuel Fix, NPR, and Mashable—and the comments have piled up on social media.

Here’s what people are saying about the recent developments:

Democratic presidential candidates Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley both shared their support for the probe on Twitter and urged other investigators to follow New York’s lead.

Legal experts weighed in on what the subpoena may find and what comes next:

“It is very significant,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told Mashable. “I think the New York investigation is likely to yield a great deal of info that would be pertinent to whether the federal government” would pursue a RICO investigation, Gerrard said.

“We may be seeing the opening salvo of litigation akin to the tobacco lawsuits from the 1990s,” said Kenneth Rumelt, a professor at Vermont Law School, to the Los Angeles Times. “The major difference this time is that the stakes are higher.”

“What’s shaping up is like the situation with the tobacco companies,” Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the London School of Economics, said to New Scientist. “For many years, they knew the truth about the harm done by cigarettes. The question now is whether ExxonMobil was doing the same with its products.”

“The issue with Exxon, just as it was with tobacco, is what did they know and when did they know it,” James E. Tierney, who directs the national state attorneys general program at Columbia University, said to the New York Times. “If internal documents at Exxon show that they deliberately misled consumers and investors, then Exxon has potential liability … If the documents do not exist, then Exxon has nothing to worry about.”

Law professors said other energy companies will likely be drawn into the fray.

“Exxon Mobil is not alone,” said Stephen Zamora, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, according to the New York Times. “This is not likely to be an isolated matter.”

“My sense is this will spread, so much so to the point that companies that fail to disclose will be in trouble … The prudent thing to do would be to disclose, to say this is a risk—it’s hard to quantify—but it’s a risk,” said Peter Huang, a business law professor at the University of Colorado and expert in risk disclosure. Huang was interviewed by Fuel Fix.

“If [the attorneys general] are successful with one company, it could be like a domino effect and be successful with many others,” said Leslie Garfield, a law professor at Pace University, to NPR.

Some industry experts expressed skepticism about the strength of the case against Exxon and whether the probe should even be happening.

“Unless they directly lied in Congress, the legal case against them is kind of thin,” said Hal Harvey, chief of Energy Innovation, an energy consultancy, to the New York Times. But he added, the record shows that the companies “have walked away from being a credible spokesman on science.”

“It is unfortunate that interest groups can fuel political expediency to cause investigations to occur where there should be none,” Jacob Frenkel, a former SEC lawyer and partner at Shulman Rogers in Washington, said to Reuters.

Other analysts offered their take on the news.

“The context here is that climate activists have long accused Exxon—along with various other large energy companies—of seeking to influence the climate policy debate to their benefit. The claim that Exxon ‘suppressed’ research is part and parcel of this broader issue. Naturally, the company takes a different view of this issue,” Pavel Molchanov, an oil industry analyst with Raymond James, said in a statement, according to the Washington Post.

Some writers and environmentalists have cited the influence of ICN’s reporting:

“You can see the origin of this web of duplicity in stories done by the Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times. Kudos to both. They found that Exxon”s board of directors was fully briefed by its own scientists, decades ago, on the emerging consensus that burning oil and gas may cause sea levels to rise, glacial ice to melt and a host of other “generally negative consequences.” Their reaction was to fund the kind of counter-information campaigns that Soviet-era propagandists would be proud of,” wrote Timothy Egan in a New York Times opinion piece.

“‘Exxon Knew’ just joined the category of truly serious scandals. Just as New York’s Teddy Roosevelt took on the Standard Oil Trust a century ago, New York’s attorney general has shown great courage in holding to account arguably the richest and most powerful company on Earth. We hope that other state attorney generals and the federal Department of Justice, and the Securities Exchange Commission will show similar fortitude,” said founder Bill McKibben. “I went to jail a few weeks ago because I was worried this great reporting from Inside Climate News and the LA Times might disappear. I’m not worried about that anymore.”