Exxon Fighting to Shut Down Investigations Into Company’s Foreknowledge of Climate Change

A federal judge ruled the company has a right to discover what evidence the MA Attorney General has on them

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Story Transcript

KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.

Oil giant, Exxon Mobil is fighting back against separate but related investigation from the Attorney’s General of both New York State and Massachusetts about whether the company misled the investors and the public at large about what it new decades ago about how burning fossil fuels impacts climate change. A federal judge in Texas last week ruled that the company has a right to discovery regarding evidence gathered by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in her sweeping investigation where she has subpoenaed literally decades worth of documents from Exxon. And in turn to that, the investigation has now spawned another investigation where the chairman of the house committee on Science Space and Technology, Lamar Smith, started investigating Maura Healey and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigation into Exxon. In conjunction with that investigation, they’ve also subpoenaed or asked to subpoena the records of environmental organizations such as 350.org and the Group of Concerned Scientists and none of the Attorney Generals nor the environmental groups have complied with that subpoena.

But joining us to discuss these legal somersaults today is Kathy Mulvey. She is the accountability campaign manager and advocate for the Climate and Energy team at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She is lead author on the recently released in-depth analysis titled: “The Climate Accountability Scorecard: Ranking Major Fossil Fuel Companies on Climate Deception, Disclosure, and Action.”

Kathy’s joining us now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KATHY MULVEY: Thanks a lot Kim. It’s great to be with you.

BROWN: Kathy can you first give us a bit of background on the Exxon probes and what the legal and financial ramifications could be with the investigations by the New York and Massachusetts State Attorney Generals?

MULVEY: Sure Kim. These Attorneys General are looking into whether Exxon Mobil may have violated any laws by misleading consumers and its shareholders about climate change and specifically about what it knew about realities and risks about climate change.

BROWN: And let’s talk about the subpoenas to your organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other environmental groups such as 350.org as well as the State Attorney Generals. This was launched by Congressman from Texas Lamar Smith who chairs the House Committee on Science. So how did your organization respond when you received the subpoena from him?

MULVEY: So we see the subpoena as really an abuse of power by Lamar Smith and you know the Attorneys General of New York and Massachusetts are doing their job to protect the public and their shareholders and to investigate whether there was any fraud by Exxon Mobil terms of its communications about climate science. Likewise, the Union of Concerned Scientists is doing our job by providing the best available science to policy makers and to those who are sworn to uphold the law and help to inform good policy making and good decision making.

BROWN: Kathy, what types of documents did Chairman Smith want to see from the Union of Concerned Scientists?

MULVEY: So the request is for communications related to climate change between us and the attorney’s general in question as well as with other likeminded groups that are working on climate change issues.

BROWN: And to be clear, is the Union of Concerned Scientists, is this a nonpartisan organization? Are you absent out of the political process in terms of republican/democrat?

MULVEY: That’s right. That’s right. We are a science based advocacy organization.

BROWN: So why do you think that Lamar Smith has been engaging in persuing records this way?

MULVEY: Well we see this action as a backlash against a very real evidence that’s emerged over the past year plus of what Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies knew about climate change and science and what it did in spite of that knowledge and so it really shows what’s at stake here in terms of the fossil fuel industry trying to defend business as usual at a time when the world is charting a course towards a low carb and energy future.

BROWN: So what of this recent filing in Texas regarding Exxon Mobil they’re asking the federal court to invalidate a subpoena issued by AG Eric Schneiderman from New York and the request came in the form of a motion to amend a pending action to invalidate a similar civil investigation demand issued by Massachusetts AG Maura Healey.

MULVEY: Well we say this shows that Exxon Mobil is afraid of what might emerge from these investigations and it’s fighting back using its economic and political clout and trying to defend its own interests in the fossil fuel future that it is still holding onto and clutching.

BROWN: So Exxon Mobil is calling for, actually rather calling the investigations by New York and Massachusetts “biased attempts to further a political agenda for financial gain”. Is there any basis to that?

MULVEY: So the New York Attorney General has broad authority under the state’s Martin Act to investigate instances of potential securities fraud and the New York Attorney General, the Massachusetts Attorney General, other Attorney Generals that are considering these issues are really doing their job to protect the interests of consumers and of the investors and shareholders in these companies and you know it’s been established through litigation related to the tobacco industry that fraud is not protected by the first amendment and that spreading disinformation about the impacts of a product can be subject to legal consequences.

BROWN: Now if you go to Exxon Mobil’s own website, you can see quite a lot defending their climate record and they discussed that they worked with the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change and there’s another UN climate change conference coming up in Marrakesh next month. COP22 which is seen as all important following up on the Paris Agreement. Now will Exxon Mobil and other big oil companies be present and do they have a seat at the table in these types of conferences?

MULVEY: So there are some of the fossil fuel companies that are present, Exxon Mobil has had representation on the intergovernmental panel on climate change and these companies and many businesses participated in the Paris talks last year. So what we’re looking at is how are companies like Exxon Mobil actually aligning their business model with the agreement reached by world leaders in Paris to limit global temperature increase to well less than 2 degrees.

BROWN: Now Kathy you are recently the lead author about your new analysis about what big companies knew and when and whether or not they attempted to deceive the public. So there’s been a growing movement from universities and companies internationally to divest from fossil fuel investment. The leave it in the ground movement as it were. But what about the fossil fuel companies themselves. What would a responsible fossil fuel company today, like what could they be doing in the light of current climate change?

MULVEY: Yea that’s a really good question and that’s what we’ve delved into in our climate accountability scorecard. We actually did an in depth analysis of Exxon Mobil and seven other major oil, gas, and coal companies in a few key areas including are these companies making a clean break from disinformation from climate science and public policy and to what extent are they planning for a world free from carbon pollution? Do they support fair and effective climate policies and do they fully disclose to their shareholders, climate related risks that their businesses face? So we actually, out of our analysis, developed very specific recommendations to Exxon Mobil and these other companies about actions that they could take right now because I should also say that we really focused in this analysis on the companies very recent actions. The period of our study was from January of 2015 up through May of this year.

BROWN: So how do they rank Kathy? Which companies are scoring the best on your scorecard as it were? Who is readying themselves for the end of the use of fossil fuels and who is dragging their feet here?

MULVEY: Yes, so we did find some differentiation among the companies that we studied but on the whole, there were some companies that were leaders in some areas and laggards in others. By enlarge, none of the companies that we looked at has made a clean break from climate disinformation and none of them is adequately planning for a world free from carbon pollution. So just to give an example of the range of results when we really delved into disinformation on climate change and climate science, we look both at the statements that the companies have made directly as well as the positions and actions that they support through their involving in trade associations and industry groups. In terms of direct climate science communications, really the results ran the spectrum of our scale. From advanced which his what we consider best practice, to what we labeled egregious, which is being very irresponsible.

So on the one hand, we have Shell and BP which in their direct communications, acknowledge climate science and the need for deep and swift reductions in emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. At the other end of the spectrum we have Exxon Mobil which is continuing to discredit and disparage climate science in its public statements including as recently as May of this year by its CEO Rex Tillerson. So that’s what we looked at in terms of what they’re communicating directly. On the other hand, on their indirect communications through trade associations and industry groups that have bene involved in spreading climate disinformation, groups like the American legislative exchange council or the American Petroleum institute, unfortunately all of these companies are maintaining ties to trade and industry groups that are involved in climate disinformation.

BROWN: Kathy lastly, your organization, you represent scientists. You are a scientist. You study science and yet you find yourself or the organization does rather, in the midst over this sort of battle over separation of powers here between the legislature and between Attorney Generals who are trying to conduct investigations. We have big oil, big business into this. How does it feel for your group to be involved in this way as this sort of legal battle, it’s spiraling really because it doesn’t really seem to have a short term ending on the horizon.

MULVEY: Right and our organization works on a range of climate policies and clean energy policies and what we found is that companies like Exxon Mobil and BP, Shell, Quantico, Phillips, these companies have been involved in funding a campaign to spread disinformation on climate science. So we did an investigation last year that resulted in a publication called The Climate Deception Dossiers. So in terms of the scientific analysis, there’s been groundbreaking research which shows that two thirds of emissions since the start of the industrial revolution can be traced to the products of just 90 companies.

So there’s an important responsibility there in terms of the contributions that their products have to heat trapping emissions. Then that responsibility is opt when you look at the role that these companies have played in not only blocking policy action on climate change, but in deliberately attempting to confuse and deceive the public and policy makers on this issue. So that’s how we find ourselves having to confront disinformation and having to really call on these companies to adjust their business models based on their scientific knowledge and their great technical capacity.

BROWN: Indeed. We have been speaking to Kathy Mulvey. She is the accountability campaign manager and advocate at the Climate and Energy team at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She is also the lead author of a recently released in-depth analysis titled: “The Climate Accountability Scorecard: Ranking Major Fossil Fuel Companies on Climate Deception, Disclosure, and Action.”

Kathy we appreciate your time today. Thanks a lot.

MULVEY: Thanks a lot Kim.

BROWN: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.

End

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