If Democrats want seek truth they must investigate ExxonMobil

If Democrats want seek truth they must investigate ExxonMobil

Now that Democrats have won control of the House of Representatives, the days of unchecked conservative power and liberal despair may be waning. Congressional committees vested with the authority to hold hearings, conduct investigations and serve subpoenas are likely to look into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, Donald Trump’s tax returns, the bungled hurricane response in Puerto Rico, the firing of former FBI director James Comey and resignation of attorney general Jeff Sessions, and much more.

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“We are coming to do something that is very important for our country: a more open Congress with accountability to the public,” California representative Nancy Pelosi, the once and probably future speaker of the House, said on Face the Nation. “We are not doing any investigation for a political purpose, but to seek the truth.”

If Pelosi and House Democrats are sincere about restoring integrity to Congress, uncovering threats to democracy and seeking the truth, they should also investigate a corporation that has done long-term and probably irrevocable damage to our politics and planet: ExxonMobil.

Our era is defined by interlocking crises of truth, democracy and ecology. ExxonMobil is a major actor at that intersection.

Internal and external documents compiled by InsideClimate News, the Los Angeles Times and researchers at Harvard University reveal that ExxonMobil, the world’s largest fossil fuel corporation, knew as early as 1977 – and potentially as early as the 1950s – that its business activities could wreak havoc on the climate.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the company outfitted the largest supertanker in its fleet with instruments to monitor the oceanic absorption of carbon dioxide and hired scientists and mathematicians to study global warming. They developed in-house climate change models and published their findings in peer-reviewed journals.

In a 1978 memo, one Exxon Research manager wrote: “This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefiting mankind.”

But by the late 1980s, the oil giant had changed its stance. In 1988, an Exxon public affairs manager wrote that the company should “emphasize the uncertainty” of climate science. This became the “Exxon position” – and so began one of the greatest conspiracies of our time.

Borrowing from big tobacco’s playbook, Exxon and other oil corporations launched public relations campaigns to sow doubt about the science behind climate change. Exxon took out full-page ads in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, among others. One ad described climate change as “unsettled science”. Another, titled Reset the Alarm, made a claim the company knew to be false: “We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.”

A peer-reviewed study of the corporation’s public and private communications by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University demonstrates that ExxonMobil actively misled the public about climate science and its implications. Exxon also hid the implications of climate science and policy from its shareholders, inflating the value of the fossil fuel assets that it would have had to abandon to meet international climate targets.

But Exxon’s deceits run even deeper. Over the years, the company channeled about $30m to researchers and activist groups promoting disinformation about global warming. Documents from the Bush administration reveal the company played a key role in dissuading the former president from signing the Kyoto protocol. In league with other fossil fuel corporations – most notably Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute – Exxon transformed the Republican party into the enemy of scientific fact.

All the while, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel corporations have spewed emissions into the atmosphere while bearing little or no cost for the damage – and driving us headlong into a climate crisis. The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, informed by thousands of leading studies, makes it plain: to avoid catastrophic warming of more than 1.5C (, humanity must transition from dirty to clean energy by 2030.

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Last month, New York state sued ExxonMobil for conducting a “longstanding fraudulent scheme” to deceive investors, analysts and insurers “concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change regulation”. Dozens of jurisdictions and entities across the country, including the state of Rhode Island, Boulder county in Colorado, and multiple municipalities across California have filed suits against Exxon and other oil companies. Last week, crab fishermen in California sued 30 fossil fuel corporations for damaging their fisheries.

ExxonMobil and the other fossil fuel corporations most responsible for climate change should pay their fair share to address this crisis. But if their continuing lobbying efforts are any indication, they will not. Oil and gas interests spent over $100m to stop climate action at the ballot box in the midterm elections – doling out over $41m in Colorado and $31m in Washington to defeat state-level ballot initiatives that would have restricted fracking operations to a safe distance from homes and schools and made carbon polluters pay for their waste.

Recently, Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined youth climate activists in a sit-in at the Capitol Hill office of Pelosi, demanding House Democrats pursue a Green New Deal. In response, Pelosi has reaffirmed that she will revive the select committee on climate change disbanded by Republicans. For the sake of all of us, House Democrats have a duty to use the authority of that and other committees to investigate Exxon.

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