Exxon Mobil fights claims it hid early climate change science

WASHINGTON — Exxon Mobil is hitting back hard against reports that the company sponsored cutting-edge research confirming the risks of climate change decades ago, before campaigning against efforts to clamp down on heat-trapping emissions that come from burning fossil fuels.

The company’s pushback — with a press release blasting the allegations as “inaccurate and deliberately misleading” and a top executive taking to Twitter to repudiate the claims — comes amid mounting calls for a federal investigation of the issue.

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders has asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to probe whether Exxon violated federal law and engaged in “corporate fraud” by pushing “a misinformation campaign” about the risks of burning fossil fuels.

“It appears that Exxon knew its product was causing harm to the public and spent millions of dollars to obfuscate the facts in the public discourse,” Sanders said in a letter to Lynch.

Two Democratic lawmakers from California — Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier — made earlier calls for an investigation, suggesting parallels between the Exxon allegations and the tobacco industry’s suppression of data showing smoking was harmful. In 2006, a federal judge ruled that 11 tobacco companies had violated racketeering and fraud laws and deceived the public about the health risks and addictiveness of smoking cigarettes.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said on the Senate floor that racketeering charges would force “truth telling” on the issue. And Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is making a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, echoed the sentiment.

Investigations by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times cites internal documents from Exxon showing the company led research into the effects of carbon dioxide and warned management in 1982 that avoiding global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”

The warnings didn’t make it into regulatory filings, and instead, Exxon “started financing efforts to amplify doubt about the state of climate science,” InsideClimate News said. But Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs, Ken Cohen, says the reports “deliberately cherry-picked statements . . . to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers.”

“What these documents actually demonstrate is a robust culture of scientific discourse on the causes and risks of climate change that took place at ExxonMobil in the 1970s and ’80s and continues today,” Cohen said in a blog post. “They point to corporate efforts to fill the substantial gaps in knowledge that existed during the earliest years of climate change research.” Cohen tweeted at some of the company’s critics, including Sanders, the Sierra Club and 350.org founder Bill McKibben and Sanders.

Exxon Mobil has opposed some efforts to pare carbon dioxide emissions, but in its latest releases emphasizes the company’s support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

The scandal has implications beyond just Exxon Mobil. Other oil companies that conducted their own climate change research also could face public scrutiny — questioned what they knew about the phenomenon, when they knew it and how they responded to it.

Conservationists say that if any climate change forecasts and warnings were shared among oil companies that could foster legal claims under federal racketeering laws and state consumer protection statutes.