ExxonMobile, one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world, is facing mounting calls for a federal investigation of its role in promoting climate-change skepticism. On Thursday, Hillary Clinton joined fellow presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, along with a number of members of Congress, in calling for an inquiry. “Yes, yes. They should,” Clinton said when asked at a campaign event if she’d ask the DOJ to launch a probe. “There’s a lot of evidence that they misled…people.”
A coalition of several dozen environmental and civil-rights groups sent a letter Friday to Attorney General Loretta Lynch requesting an inquiry into allegations “that the company knew about climate change as early as the 1970s, but chose to mislead the public about the crisis in order to maximize their profits from fossil fuels.” The signatories included 350.org, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Foundation of Women in Hip Hop.
It was Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who jump-started the public conversation about what kind of legal liability fossil-fuel companies might bear for funding groups that misled the public about climate science. In a floor speech and an op-ed in May, Whitehouse drew a parallel between Big Oil and tobacco companies, which were prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for a decades-long public relations effort to discredit science linking smoking to cancer and other health risks. Whitehouse’s comparison gained credibility in July, when the Union of Concerned Scientists published a collection of internal documents revealing a “coordinated campaign of deception” implicating a number of fossil-fuel companies. One of the discoveries was that Exxon was factoring climate change and the risks of carbon emissions into its decision making as early 1981.
Since then, investigations by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News have more fully exposed the depth of Exxon’s understanding of climate science, as well as the lengths the corporation went to in order to conceal it. Internal documents from the late 1970s and early 1980s show the company performed cutting-edge research that predicted their product could have a “catastrophic” impact on the climate, but concealed its findings from the public—and, ultimately, dedicated millions of dollars to sow doubt about the conclusions its own scientists had drawn. Though the oil giant dismissed the allegations as being “without merit,” scrutiny is only growing.