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Did Exxon Mobil Lie To The Public About The Risks Of Climate Change?


In the battle over the science of climate change, oil and gas money has helped fund the skeptics. One of those companies, Exxon Mobil, has acknowledged that it supported climate change deniers in the past but no longer does. Yesterday, news broke that the giant energy company is under investigation for publicly denying what its own scientists had concluded, that climate change is a result of human activity. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been following this developing story and joins us now to discuss what's going on. And Geoff, who is leading this investigation?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, this investigation's being conducted by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He's using a state law known as the Martin Act, which gives him broad powers to investigate financial fraud.

MONTAGNE: And the obvious question, what does climate change have to do with financial fraud?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, well, Exxon is, of course, an oil and gas company, and so that - you can imagine there are plenty ways that climate change might affect its business. For example, there might some day be a tax on carbon that would almost certainly affect Exxon's profits. Now, Exxon's made disclosures about the risks climate change could pose to its business since 2007. But as I understand it, the question is whether those disclosures are sufficient, given its own research into climate change, or whether it needed to say more to its investors or say it earlier. The Martin Act is a pretty broad and strong piece of legislation, so it has a lot of power.

MONTAGNE: It's a weapon for the prosecutor. Exxon and other energy companies have been accused of funding climate change deniers. And does this relate to that at all?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this particular investigation, again, as I understand it, has to do with the formal disclosures it made to investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission. But it's obviously indirectly about its public stance on climate change as well. In a press call yesterday, Exxon drew this very clear line between what they described as their science on climate change and their policy positions. Here's Exxon spokesperson Kenneth Cohen.


KENNETH COHEN: We have been a very proactive participant in this two-pronged approach to climate change, which is recognizing the risks are real, participate in scientific inquiry, draw a line. We've also been participating in what would be effective policy responses.

BRUMFIEL: So there you hear Exxon has been conducting climate change research as far back as the '70s. But at the same time, it's been opposing climate change treaties, such as Kyoto, and actively funding climate denier organizations and some individual scientists who are skeptical and, of course, they've been doing a lot of lobbying. So, Exxon's sort of been trying to have both ways, and I think the company would argue there's nothing wrong with that.

MONTAGNE: What happens now?

BRUMFIEL: It's really too early to say. I mean, I think it's important to keep in mind, this is only an investigation at this point. There's no charges. There's no indictments. But eventually, it could turn into either a civil or criminal complaint. We're just going to have to keep watching.

MONTAGNE: Geoff, thanks very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.