The Planet

Climate Hawks to Department of Justice: It’s Time to Prosecute Exxon

by Ben Jervey

November 23, 2015

Members of Congress, presidential candidates, and now at least 350,000 American citizens are calling upon U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate and prosecute Exxon Mobil for intentionally deceiving the public about the science of climate change. 

In September, two exclusive investigative reports by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News, revealed that Exxon’s own scientists were researching climate change, even as the company was spending big money to misinform the public about climate science. The Inside Climate News investigation found that as early as 1977, Exxon’s own scientists were warning management about oil’s role in “potentially catastrophic” global warming.

Many climate advocates – including a growing number of politicians – believe that the deception could well be criminal. Last Thursday, representatives from a number of climate advocacy group –  including Climate Hawks Vote, 350.org, Food and Water Watch, the Moms Clean Air Force, the Working Families Party, and Greenpeace USA – delivered over 350,000 signed petitions to the Department of Justice demanding an investigation.

Delivering 350,000 petitions to the Department of Justice. Photo: Food and Water Watch

Climate Hawks Vote, a SuperPAC climate advocacy group, first called for a Department of Justice investigation back in September, a few days after the bombshell Inside Climate News report. Their version of the petition reads:

Newly revealed documents show that Exxon’s own scientists were aware of and studying the dangerous impacts of greenhouse gases in the 1970s and 1980s -- until Exxon’s leadership decided to shut down the research and promote climate denial instead, in order to protect the company’s unfathomably large profits.

The United States Department of Justice has the power to prosecute Exxon’s deliberate deception under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act - just as the DOJ did to the tobacco industry for knowingly lying about the dangers of cigarette smoking.


Soon, other groups rallied to support the petition.

As did politicians. Every Democratic presidential candidate has now called for a Department of Justice investigation.

Frontrunner Hillary Clinton, was asked at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire whether she would call upon the Department of Justice to investigate Exxon Mobil.

“Yes, yes, they should,” Clinton replied. “There's a lot of evidence they misled people.”

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sent a letter to Attorney General Lynch asking for an investigation.

“These reports, if true, raise serious allegations of a misinformation campaign that may have caused public harm similar to the tobacco industry’s actions – conduct that led to federal racketeering convictions”

And Martin O’Malley, former Governor or Maryland, tweeted, “We held tobacco companies responsible for lying about cancer. Let’s do the same for oil companies and climate change.”

In Congress, there have been further demands. Representatives Ted Lieu and Mark DeSalunier, both of California, wrote a letter to Lynch, demanding a probe.

"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 then Exxon's actions were immoral. We request the DOJ to investigate whether ExxonMobil's actions were also illegal."

The violations could fall into a number of legal categories, RL Miller, founder and president of Climate Hawks Vote, explained in an email. The petition to Attorney General Lynch requested an investigation under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, under which the Department of Justice sued the tobacco industry for lying about the dangers of cigarettes.

Sharon Eubanks was the Department of Justice attorney who won the big racketeering case against Big Tobacco, and told Think Progress, “I think a RICO action is plausible and should be considered.”

“It appears to me, based on what we know so far, that there was a concerted effort by Exxon and others to confuse the public on climate change,” Eubanks said. “They were actively denying the impact of human-caused carbon emissions, even when their own research showed otherwise.”

But Miller of Climate Hawks Vote emphasized that RICO was just a jumping off point, and that “several other statutes might come into play, generally securities fraud and consumer fraud.​” These exist on both the federal and state level.

Miller said that Senator Sanders has called for a task force to investigate. “The right call,” said Miller.

And, on the state level, some attorneys general are already wading in. No one deeper than New York’s Eric Schneiderman, who issued an 18-page subpoena to Exxon Mobil at the beginning of November, demanding the turnover of documents related to Exxon’s climate science research, and of its climate change communications strategy. These requests could lead to possible prosecution under the state’s Martin Act, which forbins "any fraud, deception, concealment, suppression, false pretense" or "any representation or statement which is false" and give the AG’s office broad power to dig through the company’s document archives.

Advocates, including Miller of Climate Hawks Vote, are now pushing other state AGs to follow Schneiderman’s lead. Last month, Climate Hawks Vote called out 16 state attorneys general in particular, because of their history of at least acknowledging climate pollution as a legal issue. This group includes California AG Kamala Harris, who is currently running for Senate, who has, according to Inside Climate News, “extraordinarily broad investigative authority under the state's powerful consumer and shareholder protection laws.”

The damages of effective law suits could potentially be huge – entire island nations will disappear because of the climate pollution that Exxon knew and mislead the public about, and what’s the value of that? Regardless of how the courts would potentially decide, Schneiderman (and possibly other AGs who follow suit) are casting a wide net for damning documents, and even more definitive proof of Exxon’s willful web of deceit. 

Photo credit: John Duffy (cc) on Flickr

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Climate Hawks to Department of Justice: It’s Time to Prosecute Exxon