ExxonMobil climate change

October 14, 2015

Loretta E. Lynch, Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Lynch,

As Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, we are alarmed by allegations that Exxon (becoming ExxonMobil in 1999) intentionally hid the truth about the role of fossil fuels in influencing climate change. Investigations by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News allege that Exxon scientists confirmed fossil fuels’ role in climate change decades ago, but top executives decided to hide the truth and instead embarked on a massive campaign of denial and disinformation.1

ExxonMobil’s apparent behavior is similar to cigarette companies that repeatedly denied harm from tobacco and spread uncertainty and misleading information to the public. The Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecuted tobacco companies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. We ask that the DOJ similarly investigate ExxonMobil for organizing a sustained deception campaign disputing climate science and failing to disclose truthful information to investors and the public. We request the DOJ investigate whether ExxonMobil violated RICO, consumer protection, truth in advertising, public health, shareholder protection or other laws.

According to the invesitgation by Inside Climate News, in July 1977 at an Exxon Management Committee meeting, senior Exxon scientist James Black “delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.”2 In 1978 Exxon “launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and its impact on the earth.”3 Exxon “assembled a brain trust that would spend more than a decade deepening the company’s understandin” of global warming.4

In 1982, Exxon prepared a corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change. The primer — which was circulated to management but marked “not to be distributed externally” — stated that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion” and that unless that happened “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered.”5 Exxon “did not elaborate on the carbon problem in annual reports filed with securities regulators,” nor did Exxon “mention in those filings that concern over CO2 was beginning to influence business decisions it was facing.”6

In 1988, instead of following their own scientists and the actual science, Exxon apparently started doing the opposite and engages in a campaign of denial and disinformation. The company “started financing efforts to amplify doubt about the state of climate science.”7 Exxon “helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world’s largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions.”8</sup

Despite its public efforts to deny climate change, Exxon apparently took companty actions based on its knowledge of global warming. According to the Los Angeles Times investigation, in 1990 engineers at Exxon “were quietly incorporating climate change projections into the company’s planning and closely studying how to adapt the company’s Arctic operations to a warming planet.”9 A top Exxon researcher, Ken Croasdale, explored how much easier and cheaper oil drilling in the Arctic would be with a melting ice cap.10

The Times investigation concluded that “As Croasdale’s team was closely studying the impact of climate change on the company’s operations, Exxon and its worldwide affiliates were crafting a public policy position that sought to downplay the certainty of global warming.”11 The Times identified a “gulf between Exxon’s internal and external approach to climate change.”12

The apparent tactics employed by Exxon are reminiscent of the actions employed by big tobacco companies to deceive the American people about the known risks of tobacco. In this case, Exxon scientists knew about fossil fuels causing global warming and Exxon took internal actions based on its knowledge of climate change. Yet Exxon funded and publicly engaged in a campaign to deceive the American people about the known risks of fossil fuels in causing climate change. If these allegations against Exxon are true, the Exxon’s actions were immoral. We request the DOJ to investigate whether ExxonMobil’s acdtions were also illegal.

Sincerely,

Ted W. Lieu
Member of Congress
Mark DeSaulnier
Member of Congress


1See Sara Jerving et al., “What Exxon Knew About the Earth’s Melting Arctic,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 9, 2015; Neela Banerjee et al., “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” Inside Climate News, Sep. 21, 2015.
2Neela Banerjee et al., “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” Inside Climate News, Sep. 21, 2015
3Id.
4Id.
5Id.
6Id.
7Id.
8Id.
9Sara Jerving et al., “What Exxon Knew About the Earth’s Melting Arctic,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 9, 2015
10Id.
11Id.
12Id.

34 responses to “ExxonMobil climate change

  1. AT LAST.

  2. Doubtful this will go anywhere. Exxon research was published in peer-reviewed journals. Hardly fits the definition of hiding the truth.

  3. With limited exceptions, corporations are not barred from lying or obfuscation. But it might be worth examining whether any of Exxon’s executives or experts perjured themselves in Congressional hearings.

  4. Excellent. Hope someone pays attention.

  5. > Exxon research was published in peer-reviewed journals. Hardly fits the definition of hiding the truth.

    Ah. You have spotted the bleedin’ obvious that the Congress critters missed.

    [Response: Are you guys missing the “bleedin’ obvious”? That while their scientists published in peer-reviewed journals, they funded a campaign of denial. Your argument didn’t save the tobacco companies, I doubt it will save ExxonMobil.]

    > launched its own extraordinary research into carbon dioxide from fossil fuels

    That is nonsense. Exxon had a research programme, but its was nothing out of the ordinary.

    • I presume those peer-reviewed papers were about aspects of global warming, the way scientific articles normally are. They were also written by the Exxons scientists, it makes a difference that there is now evidence that the top management knew.

      I am somewhat surprised this is news. Okay it is nice to have evidence in this case, but naturally all large companies know the true state of the art in sciences affecting their bottom line. Anything else would be completely irresponsible of the management. Such dysfunctional companies would quickly be removed from the market. The more so in a high-tech industry. Exxon will not be the only one.

  6. Can anybody calculate based on how much oil Exxon has dug up and sold what their contribution to global warming has been?

  7. Ah, William, Katherine Hayhoe may beg to differ with you, seeing as she was one of the scientists that Exxon paid:

  8. Andy Lee Robinson

    If anyone hasn’t seen Merchants of Doubt yet, watch it however you can.
    The tide is turning.

  9. If the case rests on Exxon internal research advice conflicting with their public messaging, Exxon may present dissenting views on AGW from their researchers buttressing their campaign to emphasise uncertainty. They have a few prominent skeptics from their ranks to cite, and probably have documentary evidence of such dissent (definitely advice on uncertainties) even during the 80s. Broadening the case to pit Exxon against IPCC is a different argument and not likely to get traction. Exxon is not beholden to the IPCC, only their shareholders. They may argue that they answered their shareholders on AGW by curtailing funding for their uncertainty-emphasising campaign (funding denial) in 2008, and that business decisions made with the potentials of AGW in mind (separate from funding the denial machine)was contingency planning. Is failing to disclose to shareholders this planning and the reasons behind it indictable? I’m unfamiliar with the extent of business obligations in this regard, apart from not lying to shareholders.

    Those of us familiar with the story know what Exxon was doing and why. Shining a congressional spotlight on this history may be worthwhile whether or not any action succeeds, and maybe Lieu and DeSaulnier are thinking this: if not an outright win, at least an optical victory exposing Big Oil. Any chance it could backfire if Exxon were exonerated?

    • I worked on Arctic development projects in the 1990’s, discussed Arctic ice data trends with Exxon engineers, and didn’t perceive they were projecting polar ice cover and properties improving enough to make a difference in their basis of design.

      My hunch is that Shell was more focused on the global warming issue. They were more aggressive exposing large amounts of $ in Arctic projects. And Shell was fairly open about the way they perceived the problem.

      I think this point being made about Exxon reflects the political polarization and witch hunt environment we see nowadays. In a sense this is merely reflecting the decay of the American political elite, and the mindlessness of the way this problem is being approached. When you have Christiana Figueres touting Chinese government practices you shoot yourselves in both feet.

    • skeptictmac57

      Maybe the best that we can hope for is to get all the major players in the fossil fuel industry in front of a congressional hearing, and get them to loudly, publicly and unequivocally state that climate change is real, that emissions from burning their products are largely to blame (i.e. man made), that it is a serious problem that we must urgently address, and that going forward they will lead and champion efforts to solve the problem and no longer foster doubt and inaction.

    • fernandoleanme wrote:

      I worked on Arctic development projects in the 1990’s, discussed Arctic ice data trends with Exxon engineers, and didn’t perceive they were projecting polar ice cover and properties improving enough to make a difference in their basis of design….

      I think this point being made about Exxon reflects the political polarization and witch hunt environment we see nowadays.

      Perhaps you were speaking to the wrong engineers?

      From the LA Times:

      Ken Croasdale, senior ice researcher for Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, was leading a Calgary-based team of researchers and engineers that was trying to determine how global warming could affect Exxon’s Arctic operations and its bottom line.

      “Certainly any major development with a life span of say 30-40 years will need to assess the impacts of potential global warming,” Croasdale told an engineering conference in 1991. “This is particularly true of Arctic and offshore projects in Canada, where warming will clearly affect sea ice, icebergs, permafrost and sea levels.”

      What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic
      by Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch and Susanne Rust, October 9, 2015

  10. Fernando makes a good point about political polarization, witch hunt environments, the decay of the American political elite, and the mindlessness of the way the problem of AGW is being approached, but I’m pretty sure not in the way that he thinks.

  11. Here’s an example of Exxons present position on climate rather than what some imagine they stand for.
    http://www.exxonmobilperspectives.com/2015/10/08/setting-the-record-straight-on-climate/

    I have an analogy. Take the issue of US immigration, it strikes me that ALL the candidates for the presidential election consider the current immgration situation as problematic and requires a fix. As extreme voices (eg Trump) emerge in the debate some of the players recognize that these extreme views are now the problem and their argument now shifts to challenging these devisive positions. It’s not that these players are suddenly denying immigration is a problem that needs a fix rather the extreme views have become a bigger problem and need to be countered. It strikes me that is where Exxon is, thats certainly how their public statements read. Whether that is motivated by self interest can be debated butits hard to call it all out denial.

    [Response: Ironic that you link to a PR piece which only says what we already knew and nobody disputes — the Exxon has known of the science for a long time. But there’s nothing that addresses the real issue: despite knowing, they actively and aggressively funded a denial campaign.

    As for their “present position,” I suspect it’s really this: we got caught so we’d better change the subject.]

    • Response to response,
      I think ther is more to it than your response implies. The two media reports that seem to have sparked this are written in a way that suggests Exxon were ‘good’ on climate in the past, at least their scientists were. And there is no demying Exxon allowed their scientists to engage the public debate. But that in some way they have retreated from that position now and have become deniers. Their “PR piece” whatever you imagine it is motivated from mentions climate change as a problem and suggests a framework in which their preferred solution should come from. Clearly the radical end of climate change is something they dislike. Again you can hate their position all you want but it seems difficult to call it denial.

      [Response: What nonsense. Allowing your scientists to publish in peer-reviewed journals isn’t much in the way of “engage the public debate,” but paying GCC and CEI and Heartland Institute so they can bombard the Wall Street Journal with op-eds and appear on news programs to present “the other side” — that sure as hell is. And I sure as hell can call that denial.

      My opinion: they not only got caught, they got caught red-handed, and now they’re on a campaign to weasel out of it.

      I’ll reiterate Andy Lee Robinson’s advice: if you haven’t seen “Merchants of Doubt” yet, watch it however you can. Pay especial attention to ALL the video clips of Rex Tillerson.]

  12. From the movie Rush Hour 2…
    [QUOTE]
    James Carter: Lee, let me introduce you to Carter’s new theory of criminal investigation: follow the rich white man.
    Lee: Follow the rich white man?
    James Carter: Behind every big crime there’s a rich white man waiting for his cut.
    [/QUOTE]

    ’nuff said?

    [Response: Too much said. The enemy is selfish greed, not gender or race.]

    • Or maybe a real incident?
      During the wiretaps that ultimately cracked the Archer-Daniels-Midland Lysine price fixing scam, one of the FBI agents described a hypothesis that has proved quite powerful:

      Bob Herndon:

      We saw how casual these business executives were in dealing with one another. We used to joke at one point in the case that if you saw a group of middle-aged white males with gray hair getting together in a hotel room during the middle the day, no good can come from that.

  13. human1ty1st, are you actually not aware of the fact that Exxon actively and financially supported the climate change disinformation campaigns of the Global Climate Change Alliance, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heartland Institute? Seriously?

  14. human1ty1st, Exxon’s current public position is very different to what they were pushing through the 1990s and most of the 2000s. They funded denialist groups and individuals that politicized uncertainty and promoted downright falsehoods. Though I doubt the request to the DoJ will ultimately sanction Exxon, it may bring to light the kind of tactics big oil – like big tobacco – employed to pervert the message coming from legitimate science to a wider audience.

    Some of that history is listed at this link:

    http://priceofoil.org/2014/04/14/exxons-25-year-drop-dead-denial-campaign/

    With much more detail here:

    http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/global_warming/exxon_report.pdf

    Exxon has played a significant part in establishing the denialist movement that continues to this day. We now have even more evidence, thanks to the recent exposes that have unearthed internal documents and tracked down former employees, of Exxon ignoring advice from some of its own researchers.

  15. O.k., new we have Exxongate. Another fuss about who told whom when what or not. It might be outraging – it is – but at the end of the day, it is a distraction. A distraction from Paris, a distraction from building low, medium and high level cooperative efforts. Like putting thermal isulation on your own house, use bicyle / public transport, support regional cap and trade systems like the california – quebec initiative (http://www.climatecentral.org/news/california-quebec-teaming-up-on-climate-change-18784) and so on and so forth.

    • Yeah Kinimod I hear ya, Corporate fraud of US citizens, corporate fraud of shareholders, potential violations of RICO all while taking gov’t subsidies to the tune of billions, its just so much of a distraction……

      I take it you’re a politician here in the US.

      As Mike Mann points out in the link below in his analysis of the Exxon scandal the deception and misdirection (i.e. fraud) has direct implications concerning Paris 2015.

      http://truth-out.org/buzzflash/commentary/exxon-doubled-down-on-climate-denial-and-deceit/19541-exxon-doubled-down-on-climate-denial-and-deceit

    • Well, if it’s a ‘distraction’, it’s at least a more salubrious one than Climategate. Though entirely meretricious, that one significantly shifted the public debate, and its echoes have still not completely died.

      If a completely unsupported and insupportable bit of spin can do that, then perhaps a pattern of actions that may be criminal and definitely does demonstrate intent to mislead on the part of a major “merchant of doubt” can help shift the debate back in a more productive direction.

      Perhaps that can help advance ‘cooperative efforts.’

      Though it sure doesn’t look like Exxon has much interest in ‘cooperation,’ does it?

  16. This expands a bit on Jim Eager’s post concerning Katherine Hayhoe.

    Many here may have already seen this but Inside Climate News has done an outstanding 5 part series linked below on this scandal and cover in detail the science that ExxonMobil knew some 30 years ago and the subsequent coverup. Apparently the results of this investigation aired on Frontline and the link contains short videos of employees discussing what they were doing and what they knew. Included at the linked site as well are internal Exxon documents on their knowledge of the science, the impacts etc. If this country had a functional legal system you might conclude that this corporation could be in a lot of trouble:

    http://insideclimatenews.org/news/15092015/Exxons-own-research-confirmed-fossil-fuels-role-in-global-warming

    links to the other 4 parts are included at the bottom of the linked article.

    While public knowledge of these particular activities of the ExxonMobil criminal enterpise is relatively recent, its bought and paid for denialist whores have been under this blogs microscope on multiple occasions with the scrutiny taking several forms.

    Here’s a couple of blasts from the past relevant to todays discussion. One short but memorable post was on Merchants of Doubt containing a link to an excellent interview with Naomi Oreskes:

    https://tamino.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/merchants-of-doubt/

    another short one was this one containing only a 30 sec video which is well worth a watch. The comments contain interesting links and discussion relevant to this issue.

    https://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/tell-it-like-it-is/

  17. Look on the bright side. All this confirmation that even Big Oil never really disbelieved climate science means the denialist movement have even less claim to have ever been credible sceptics

  18. Michael Hauber

    So did the tobacco companies really get prosecuted under RICO? I can’t find anything on the internet to confirm. I can find discussion of a major settlement in 1998 where effectively it seems the tobacco companies agreed to pay costs reflective of the healthcare burden imposed on government. The amount is payed each year, is based on the number of cigarettes sold, and is payable by all companies regardless of their guilt or otherwise in promoting denial. New companies either agree to pay as well or come under some escrow arrangements.

    As far as I can tell if the same thing happens to fossil fuel companies as happens to tobacco companies they will be forced to pay a carbon tax, and that there was no real downside for the tobacco companies for their actions.

    It is interesting to consider that in some high profile cases on fraud/negligence senior executives have been convicted under ‘willful ignorance’. It is not an acceptable defense to claim ‘I didn’t know’ if it can be established that a reasonable person in that position would have made the effort to find out and know.

  19. In my view, bringing Exxon up on RICO charges is exactly what is needed at this point – for the same reason that we should appreciate the efforts of Pope Francis. Both shift the public argument from questions of science to issues of ethics. Both underscore the point that at this point global warming is primarily a moral issue, not a scientific one.

    While most people in the United States realize global warming is taking place, most are still of the view that the cause of global warming is primarily something other than our greenhouse gas emissions. Among the general public, more people believe that either global warming isn’t taking place (6%), global warming is due to natural cycles (16%) or the human contribution to global warming is small (28%) than realize we are a major contributor to the climate change that has been taking place (45%). (Please see the Clearpath survey Republicans, Clean Energy,
    and Climate Change
    conducted August 24-27, 2015.) In contrast, given that according to our best estimates, the sum of all other forcings since mid 20th century have been either nearly neutral or slightly negative, resulting in a negligible warming to slight cooling, greenhouse gas emissions may properly be regarded as responsible for roughly all of the warming that has taken place.

    It should help a great deal if through the process of discovery that will result from civil RICO charges further documentation demonstrating Exxon’s early recognition of the role that fossil fuel would come to play in global warming becomes publically available and a prominent part of public discourse. Contrasting Exxon’s scientific understanding with their financing of much of the disinformation campaign in the decades that followed. They understood the science, but recognizing the consequences for humanity of continued fossil fuel consumption, the point that if those consequences became generally known their profits would suffer, they chose the engage in a massive and well-orchestrated campaign of deceit. That their strategy included the creation and funding of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, later rebranded the Cornwall Alliance which went on to create the 12-part video tape series “Resisting the Green Dragon” that attempted to identify the environmental movement as anti-Christian movement to create a One World government and false religion in terms reminiscent of the Book of Revelations only serves to indicate how far the fossil fuel industry was willing to go. (Please see: Exclusive: The Oily Operators Behind The Religious Climate Change Denial Front Group, Cornwall Alliance and The ‘Green Dragon’ Slayers: How the Religious Right and the Corporate Right are Joining Forces to Fight Environmental Protection.)

    I am not religious. As such, when I see corporations perverting the desire to moral expressed in the form of obedience to God into hatred of science so that profits may be pursued even at the price future generations through the destruction of humanity’s only home, I am at a loss for words. I do not know how to label these actions of Exxon and the rest of those involved. I am at a loss for words unless I at least begin by borrowing from the religious among us the word “evil”.

    This is what the public must understand. Exxon and the rest of the fossil fuel industry have known for quite a while that global warming is an issue of the greatest importance for our species. They knew that in terms of the fundamentals the science is quite solid. They knew that the only reasonable course of action would be the phasing out of fossil fuels. They knew that if we continued burning fossil fuels people would pay dearly for this within a matter of decades and for centuries to come. Yet they chose to delay any attempt to avoid the disasters that lay ahead through a campaign of deceit that lasted decades.

    Given a civil RICO, no one will be going to jail. That is already off the table. Likewise, I believe we should be willing to remove the possibility of any lawsuit for any damages — if the industry were to come clean, making available all relevant documents regarding what they knew, when they knew it, what denial they chose to fund and through what organizations, and yet how their understanding of climate science continued to inform their business decisions.

    Given such cooperation, I believe no lawsuit for damages would be necessary. If only a significant fraction of the documents in each of these areas became available I believe overwhelming public support for a revenue neutral carbon tax at a national level could easily be achieved. More than anything else, a revenue neutral carbon tax (where, for example, any increase in tax revenue that results from the carbon tax would be matched by a reduction in sales, income or even corporate taxes) could rapidly transition us to a zero emissions economy.

  20. From Inside Climate News via Daily Climate: Sanders taking aim at the Exxon crime family.

    http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20102015/bernie-sanders-calls-investigation-justice-department-exxon-climate-change-science

    Clearly this scandal represents a huge opportunity. Denialism has been exposed as having no position left to defend (and never having one) though as Mike Mann points out that will not stop them from continuing the struggle in the most vicious manner possible. What is needed is a final frontal assault to finish it off politically even if the legal system cannot bring justice on this issue. Sanders can lead this assault using his presidential bid, and possible candidacy, as the platform that will inform the American people on a very large scale that AGW is real and that the fossil fuel industry knew it all along and turn around those survey statistics in mentioned in Timothy Chase’s post.

  21. Michael Hauber

    I found some stuff on the RICO prosecutions. https://theloungeisback.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/how-big-tobacco-got-away-with-the-crime-of-the-century/

    Seems there wasn’t a lot of downside for the tobacco companies for deciding to mislead the public. They delayed anti-tobacco action for a long time. When facts caught up with them the restrictions and financial cost that should have been imposed all along were finally put in place. They were publicly humiliated as liars. And four CEOs lost their jobs. But not much else really.

    It would be nice if out of the tobacco and fossil fuel cases we found a nice precedent to motivate future CEOs to be more careful about such ethical issues. I’m sure there will be future cases were CEOS have to decide whether/how much to lie and cover up about the dangers to the public of a particular profit for the sake of profit.