State officials targeting fossil fuel companies on climate change fraud

FILE - This Sept. 30, 2014 file photo shows the Colstrip Steam Electric Station operated by Talen Energy in southeastern Montana. Coal companies and their supporters scored a courtroom victory with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the Obama administration failed to take potential costs into account when it decided to regulate toxic emissions from many power plants, Monday, June 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)
(AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

Attorneys general from 15 states put the fossil fuel industry on notice Tuesday, announcing they would be exploring investigations into whether companies and industry groups misled the public about climate change and the viability of renewable energy.

“They’re drilling places in the Arctic they couldn’t drill 20 years ago because the ice sheets are melting. Yet they told the public for years there were no competent models, a phrase used by an Exxon executive,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a press conference. “The first amendment does not give you the right to commit fraud.”

The announcement ramps up an ongoing effort by the New York Attorney General’s Office to prosecute oil and coal companies for efforts to undermine climate change research, bringing into the fold in law enforcement from states from California to Virginia, along with the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In November Schneiderman acknowledged his office was investigating Irving-based Exxon Mobil over a campaign in the 1990s that questioned scientific research showing climate change was intensifying. Tuesday he said that investigation was ongoing and would be “aggressive” but “careful and meticulous.”

Last year the New York agency also announced Peabody Energy, one of the world’s largest coal producers, had violated state law in its stance on climate change, forcing the company to rewrite statements to shareholders. The revision stated, “concerns about the environmental impacts of coal combustion…could significantly affect demand for our products or our securities.”

Exxon, which was cited frequently by attorneys general Tuesday, released a statement calling the investigation into disparities between the company’s public statements and its own climate change research “politically motivated.”

“The allegations repeated today are an attempt to limit free speech and are the antithesis of scientific inquiry. Left unchallenged, they could stifle the search for solutions to the real risks from climate change. ExxonMobil recognizes the risks posed by climate change, and we believe that everyone should be engaged in meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” read a statement from Suzanne McCarron, Exxon vice president for public and government affairs.

The top law enforcement officials gathered Tuesday indicated they would be looking at any and all means to bring cases against those misleading the public not only on climate change but on the ability of wind and solar forms of energy to replace fossil fuels.

Oil executives have consistently questioned the earth’s ability to shift significantly away from fossil fuels, which now supply about 80 percent of the world’s energy.

Former vice president Al Gore, whose documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” helped incite the climate change movement a decade ago, appeared at the press conference. He said fossil fuel companies were now funding a lobbying effort to enact laws that slowed the growth of renewable energy and urged officials to stop them.

“It took 40 years for [the tobacco industry] to be held to account under the law. We do not have 40 years,” Gore said. “Every night on the news now, it’s like a nature hike through the book of revelation.

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