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Attorneys General Coalition Takes on Big Oil Over Climate Change

Frustrated by federal gridlock, state-level officials are coming together to investigate companies like ExxonMobil.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil in November, it followed a yearlong investigation into what the energy company knew about climate change and what it failed to share with the public over several decades. This week, Schneiderman announced a coalition of attorneys general who are committed to “aggressively protecting and building upon the recent progress the United States has made in combating climate change.”

Scheiderman was joined by Attorneys General William Sorrell of Vermont, George Jepsen of Connecticut, Brian E. Frosh of Maryland, Maura Healey of Massachusetts, Mark Herring of Virginia, and Claude Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Former Vice President Al Gore was also in attendance at Schneiderman’s announcement, which took place during an attorneys general climate change conference, cosponsored by Schneiderman and Sorrell.

“The participating states are exploring working together on key climate-change-related initiatives, such as ongoing and potential investigations into whether fossil fuel companies misled investors and the public on the impact of climate change on their businesses,” the coalition announced. “In 2015, New York State reached a historic settlement with Peabody Energy—the world’s largest publicly traded coal company—concerning the company’s misleading financial statements and disclosures. New York is also investigating ExxonMobil for similar alleged conduct.”

Members of the coalition have previously worked together on other multistate environmental efforts that have included asking the EPA to limit climate change pollution from fossil-fueled electric power plants and pushing for federal controls on methane and other greenhouse gas emissions produced by the oil and natural gas industry.

“With gridlock and dysfunction gripping Washington, it is up to the states to lead on the generation-defining issue of climate change. We stand ready to defend the next president’s climate change agenda, and vow to fight any efforts to roll back the meaningful progress we’ve made over the past eight years,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “Our offices are seriously examining the potential of working together on high-impact, state-level initiatives.”

ExxonMobil Refinery in Baytown, Texas. Image by Roy Luck via Flickr.

The other attorneys general echoed Schneiderman in their frustration with political gridlock at the federal level. But it was New Mexico’s attorney general, Hector Balderas, and Walker, of the Virgin Islands, who emphasized just how climate change is affecting their constituencies.

“We have been impacted by climate change, and we see its drastic effects in New Mexico—extreme drought, increased risk of severe forest fires, and the ruin of our wildlife and natural habitats,” Balderas said in a statement. “Our efforts will ensure that progress is made on climate change and that the public is fully aware of the effects on the health and well-being of New Mexico families.”

“The Virgin Islands, which is especially vulnerable to environmental threats, has a particular interest in making sure that companies are honest about what they know about climate change,” Walker said. “We are committed to ensuring a fair and transparent market where consumers can make informed choices about what they buy and from whom. If ExxonMobil has tried to cloud their judgment, we are determined to hold the company accountable.”

Attorney General Walker was referring to ExxonMobil’s pioneering research into climate change dating back to 1977, which the company is alleged to have covered up. In July of that year, at Exxon’s corporate headquarters, the company’s senior scientist, James F. Black, explained to its management committee that the release of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels was critically influencing global climate change. The coalition’s goals go beyond ExxonMobil, to include various other energy corporations.

Gore, no stranger to the climate change debate, had a go at the fossil fuel industry as well. In a statement, Gore seemed to allude to ExxonMobil’s efforts to conceal its scientists’ climate change research.

“We cannot continue to allow the fossil fuel industry or any industry to treat our atmosphere like an open sewer or mislead the public about the impact they have on the health of our people and the health of our planet,” Gore said. “Attorneys general and law enforcement officials around the country have long held a vital role in ensuring that the progress we have made to solve the climate crisis is not only protected, but advanced. The first-of-its-kind coalition announced today is another key step on the path to a sustainable, clean-energy future.”

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