Two US Congressmen and three presidential candidates have called for a federal investigation into ExxonMobil since the recent release of what some have suggested are “smoking gun” documents regarding the company’s knowledge and actions concerning climate change.

In July, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a 56-page report claiming that:

  • Oil, gas and coal industry scientists – particularly Exxon scientists – were at the forefront of climate change research.
  • These scientists advised industry executives about the close connection between fossil fuels and climate change.
  • They also warned about the potentially disastrous effects of climate change.
  • Even as they learned the facts about climate change and its connection to the fossil fuel industry, oil, gas and coal companies spent tens of millions of dollars on disinformation campaigns to deceive the public about those facts.

The UCS report includes a number of primary source documents, but the one that has caused the biggest stir is a 2004 email from Leonard S. Bernstein, a chemical engineer and climate expert for Exxon and Mobil (now merged into ExxonMobil).

In his email, Mr. Bernstein writes “Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981,” because the company “needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation…They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness.”

This is not the first time Mr. Bernstein’s work has been in the news. In 2009, The New York Times ran a story titled “Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate,” featuring a report written by Mr. Bernstein’s scientific advisory committee.

This is, however, the first time that a former industry insider has said so precisely when, how and why an energy company began to research the potentially disastrous effects of climate change.

Two months after the UCS released its report, Inside Climate News (ICN), a website focused on climate change issues, published an article saying that senior Exxon scientist James Black told a gathering of Exxon executives in 1977 that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”

According to the ICN article, Mr. Black reported to Exxon executives in 1978 that climate change could be a global catastrophe:

“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed…Present thinking…holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

ExxonMobil has pushed back aggressively on the article, which was part of an ICS series about Exxon and climate change. In a press release on October 21, Ken Cohen, the company’s vice president of public affairs, wrote:

“Activists deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various company employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers. These activists took those statements out of context and ignored other readily available statements demonstrating that our researchers recognized the developing nature of climate science at the time which, in fact, mirrored global understanding.”

On October 14, US Representatives Ted Lieu (D-California) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-California) sent a letter to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, calling on her to investigate whether ExxonMobil’s decades-long PR and lobbying campaign questioning the science on climate change was illegal.Nevertheless, a number of political leaders have begun to call for a federal investigation of ExxonMobil’s actions regarding climate change.

On October 16, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley tweeted his support for a Justice Department investigation of ExxonMobil.

On October 20, US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also sent Attorney General Lynch a letter requesting a federal investigation of ExxonMobil.

On October 29, at a town hall event in New Hampshire, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton also called for a federal investigation of ExxonMobil.

Author: Lynn E. Swanson