It’s been nearly four years since leaked documents revealed Exxon Mobil Corp. understood that fossil fuel emissions caused the planet to warm before it began funding a Big Tobacco-style misinformation campaign to discredit climate science.
Now the world’s largest publicly traded oil company will face public questions for the first time over its role in creating a climate crisis that threatens to upend human civilization and render dozens of major cities uninhabitable before the end of the century.
On Thursday, European Parliament members are set to hold a hearing in Brussels that could strip Exxon Mobil of lobbying access and deepen the oil giant’s mounting legal woes.
“The historical evidence is incontrovertible,” Geoffrey Supran, the Harvard University researcher who co-authored the first peer-reviewed analysis of Exxon Mobil’s history of climate communication, said by phone. “The evidence points only one way, that these companies and trade associations funded misinformation to stifle policymakers.”
The organizers say Exxon Mobil declined an invitation to testify. Spokesmen for the company did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Under new rules, the European Union’s lawmakers could ban the company from lobbying the transnational parliament overseeing a market that in 2015 made up 14 percent of its global oil and gas production and into which it invested $2 billion last year to expand a new refinery. In 2017, the European parliament barred the agrochemical giant Monsanto ― now owned by the German conglomerate Bayer ― after the company rebuffed an invitation to testify at a hearing on whether it influenced studies into the safety of the glyphosate used in its RoundUp weedkiller.
Supran will give testimony alongside Italian European parliamentarian Eleonora Evi, Dutch European parliamentarian Bas Eickhout and Food & Water Europe campaigner Frida Kieninger.
“Parliamentarians will show that they do take this issue seriously,” Evi said in a statement to HuffPost. “I call on fellow MEPs to use this hearing as a stepping stone to start tackling Exxon Mobil’s undue and heavy influence in EU decision-making now.”
The new scrutiny comes as Exxon Mobil is struggling to fend off state investigations in the United States.
In January, the Supreme Court refused the company’s bid to block Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey from forcing Exxon Mobil to turn over decades of records on what it knew about climate change as part of a fraud probe.
In February, a state judge allowed New York Attorney General Letitia James to file a motion to dismiss Exxon Mobil’s motion alleging prosecutorial misconduct in the Empire State’s own lawsuit against the oil giant for allegedly misleading investors about the risks of climate change.
On Monday, Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine tweeted a link soliciting outside legal counsel to help an investigation and potential lawsuit against Exxon for possible fraud.
Exxon Mobil is facing a host of other litigation in the United States, too, including a federal lawsuit from Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation claiming the company failed to protect an oil storage facility in Massachusetts from the effects of climate change. A federal judge in Boston last week allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
The cases took on a new urgency last October after the United Nations released a report warning that world governments have roughly a decade to halve global emissions or face warming beyond 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. That average temperature rise ― roughly half a degree Celsius above what the planet is experiencing today ― is forecast to cause cataclysmic destruction, including $54 trillion in damages from extreme weather, droughts and flooding.
The historical evidence is incontrovertible.
Geoffrey Supran, Harvard University
Exxon Mobil abandoned directly funding its most egregious climate misinformation think tanks years ago and has since embraced the scientific reality that greenhouse gases from fossil fuels are increasing the planet’s average temperature. In 2017, the company publicly urged President Donald Trump not to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accords. Last year, the firm pledged $1 million to support efforts to pass a national tax on carbon dioxide emissions.
In a boilerplate statement distributed since InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times published documents revealing the company understood the threat of climate change as far back as 1981, Exxon Mobil said: “We unequivocally reject allegations that ExxonMobil suppressed climate change research contained in media reports that are inaccurate distortions of ExxonMobil’s nearly 40-year history of climate research.”
Yet, in January, a report by researchers at more than a dozen environmental groups calculated that U.S. oil and gas production, particularly in the vast Permian Basin of West Texas, is set to add 1,000 coal plants’ worth of climate pollution to the atmosphere by 2050. That would make reaching the emissions cuts called for in the latest United Nations report nearly impossible.
Exxon Mobil’s response was telling. Two months later, the company said in a press release that it doubled its production in the Permian Basin last year and would “increase” and “accelerate” its output to 1 million barrels per day over the next five years.