New York's attorney general would like to know: Did Exxon Mobil lie to you about the risks of climate change and to investors about how those risks might reduce profits?
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's office confirms that a New York Times story is correct in reporting that an investigation has been launched into Exxon Mobil. That story said Schneiderman issued a subpoena on Wednesday, seeking financial records, emails and other documents.
The goal is to examine whether back in the 1970s, Exxon Mobil funded groups to undermine scientific studies involving climate change. Also, the attorney general is investigating whether the oil giant properly informed its investors of the profit risks that might arise as countries cut back on fossil fuels.
In a statement, Exxon Mobil confirms it is under investigation and says its executives "unequivocally reject allegations that ExxonMobil suppressed climate change research."
The company added that it "has included information about the business risk of climate change for many years in our 10-K, Corporate Citizenship Report and in other reports to shareholders." And it noted that its research over the past four decades has been "conducted publicly in conjunction with the Department of Energy, academics and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."
Recently, Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times reported that in fact Exxon Mobil's own scientific research had long ago proved that climate change posed big risks. The company was even using that research to guide its own long-term planning for drilling in the Arctic, according to the reports.
But while it knew of the potential problems, it funded groups from the 1990s to the mid-2000s to deny climate risks, the story goes. Many environmentalists argue that Exxon Mobil's activities were similar to the tobacco companies that knew smoking posed grave health but denied their own research.
Earlier this year, the New York Times and other news outlets reported that Wei-Hock Soon, a Smithsonian researcher, had published papers questioning climate science. But it turned out the researcher had gotten funding from fossil fuel companies, including Exxon Mobil.
Inside Climate News reports that all three Democratic candidates for president, along with several members of Congress, have called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Exxon Mobil.
CEO Rex Tillerson told Fox Business News in a TV interview that accusations about deceiving the public are unfounded.
Environmentalists are applauding the efforts to investigate the oil giant. One group, 350.org, representing environmental and civil rights groups, has been sponsoring petitions calling for action.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of the group, said in a statement that Exxon Mobil has "joined the category of truly serious scandals."
The New York Times also is reporting that in a separate inquiry, the New York attorney general is looking at whether Peabody Energy, the nation's biggest coal producer, adequately informed investors of the financial risks related to climate change.
Vic Svec, a senior vice president for Peabody, said in a statement that the company "continues to work with the New York attorney general's office regarding our disclosures, which have evolved over the years."
Under a New York law, the state attorney general has broad authority to investigate financial fraud.
Leslie Garfield, a law professor at Pace University, says other states could join New York in seeking broad settlements similar to those paid by tobacco companies. Those settlements cost corporations tens of billions of dollars.
"If [the attorneys general] are successful with one company, it could be like a domino effect and be successful with many others," Garfield said.
WSHU reporter Charles Lane contributed to this story.