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Science & Environment

New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into ExxonMobil


ExxonMobil, the giant oil and gas company, is under investigation for misleading the public and its investors about climate change. The New York attorney general is leading the investigation. Inside Climate News has published a series of investigative reports on Exxon and climate change. Neela Banerjee reports for Inside Climate News, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

NEELA BANERJEE: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: Could you start by telling us what exactly the New York attorney general's office will be investigating? I mean, what is Exxon accused of doing and for how long?

BANERJEE: What they're looking at is the company's disclosures to shareholders and the SEC about climate change and the risk that it would pose to shareholders.

MCEVERS: So layout a timeline for me. I mean, what did Exxon know about fossil fuels and climate change. And what exactly did they tell their investors and when?

BANERJEE: What we discovered in our reporting was that Exxon knew about climate change from the combustion of fossil fuels as early as 1977, that you had a senior scientist telling Exxon's top executives about it in 1977, Exxon doing its own in-house research, very ambitious research, through the '70s and '80s and keeping their top management apprised of it. And yet, from what our understanding of it in reading of SEC filings, Exxon only starts talking about climate change sometime in the 1990s and actually talks about it being a risk to its business later on in about the, you know, late-'90s, early 2000s.

MCEVERS: And was it in fact behind some of the research that denied climate change?

BANERJEE: Exxon and others in the fossil fuel industry supported think tanks that made climate denial and skepticism an acceptable position, and it was something that lawmakers could go to and say, look; you know, climate change isn't a real thing.

MCEVERS: I mean how illegal is it to sort of know one thing is true but to say another thing?

BANERJEE: Well, you know, we - I mean, I think that's something that the AG's office and others will have to determine. Whether, you know - when a company is publicly traded, they are supposed to tell their shareholders about risks to their investments because of regulations, because of science, because of market trends. And whether Exxon did that in a timely fashion as transparently as possible is something that the AG's office and the courts will have to determine. I mean, I don't know the answer to that.

MCEVERS: I mean, this sounds familiar - right? - like big tobacco companies knowing that, you know, smoking could cause cancer but not telling people about it. If misconduct is to be found on ExxonMobil's part, I mean, what kind of penalties are we talking - millions, billions?

BANERJEE: There could be millions of dollars. There could be changes in what Exxon discloses. You know, the big difference here is that, you know, in the tobacco industry once executives found out what their scientists were saying. they suppressed that research. Exxon, from the time it launched its in-house climate research in 1978 through the late '80s, actually touted their research, and they wanted to be considered on the cutting edge of climate research because they felt that at some point, there was going to be laws and rules limiting greenhouse gases from fossil fuel companies and that the best way to shape that policy would be to do credible, rigorous research. Exxon continued to do research, you know, after that, but they also started to fund these groups that promoted climate denial and contrarianism.

MCEVERS: That's Neela Banerjee. She reports for Inside Climate News. Thanks so much.

BANERJEE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.