California Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee requested a Department of Justice investigation into ExxonMobil on Wednesday, writing that the company's behavior "is similar to cigarette companies that repeatedly denied harm from tobacco and spread uncertainty and misleading information to the public." There have always been pronounced parallels between the tobacco and oil industry—both working to undermine regulatory action that could hamper profit—but a federal investigation may mean they share the same fate, as well.
In 1999, the DOJ investigated and eventually sued big tobacco for spreading misleading evidence about the connection between cigarettes and cancer. The companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and faced repercussions for lying to the public about science. Now, Congressmen Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier of California say it could be Exxon's turn.
"We ask that the DOJ similarly investigate ExxonMobil for organizing a sustained deception campaign disputing climate science and failing to disclose truthful information to investors and the public," they wrote, according to a letter provided to the New Republic. "We request the DOJ investigate whether ExxonMobil violated RICO, consumer protection, truth in advertising, public health, shareholder protection, or other laws.
“The apparent tactics employed by Exxon are reminiscent of the actions employed by big tobacco companies to deceive the American people about the known risks of tobacco,” the letter says.
Two investigations undertaken by Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News show that Exxon scientists accepted the role fossil fuels play in driving global warming in the 1970s and 80s, and briefed corporate executives on the need for “major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” In the years that followed, executives spearheaded efforts to cast doubt on the science community’s findings to halt action on climate change. Exxon financed the Global Climate Coalition, which worked against climate action in the 1990s before disbanding in 2002. Eight years ago, the company also promised to stop funding climate deniers, yet continues to contribute today to prominent skeptics, including Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.
And this attitude appears to have seeped into the DNA of Exxon itself. Just this spring, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson questioned climate change: “What if everything we do, it turns out our models are lousy, and we don’t get the effects we predict?” Tillerson said. “Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity, and those solutions will present themselves as those challenges become clear.” While other major oil companies have endorsed a global climate deal in Paris at the end of the year to tackle emissions, Exxon has opted out of pushing for climate action.
Activists, including Bill McKibben of 350.org and R.L. Miller of the Climate Hawks Vote PAC, have been pushing for a more formal investigation and prosecution of Exxon. "In the 28 years I’ve been following the story of global warming, this is the single most outrageous set of new revelations that journalists have uncovered," he posted to Tumblr. On Thursday, McKibben was arrested for protesting at an Exxon station in Burlington, Vermont.
For years, activists and scientists have charged Exxon with taking the world down an irresponsible path, rejecting climate science in favor of increased fossil fuel consumption and profits. Lieu and DeSaulnier believe it's illegal, too.