‘I Have Sued Exxon Mobil,’ Kamala Harris Said. Not Quite.

For years, researchers, activists and government officials have pointed to evidence that Exxon Mobil had in-depth knowledge of the risks of fossil fuels while misleading the public about the severity of climate change.

During the Democratic forum on climate change on Wednesday night, that issue got a prime-time airing. And Senator Kamala Harris of California got applause from the audience when she answered a question about climate “disinformation” spread by corporate interests.

“What would you do?” Erin Burnett, a CNN moderator, asked. “Would you sue them? Would you sue Exxon Mobil?”

“I have sued Exxon Mobil,” Ms. Harris replied.

Not quite.

An investigation, yes. A lawsuit, no. In 2016, The Los Angeles Times reported that Ms. Harris, then California’s attorney general, had begun an investigation into “whether Exxon Mobil Corp. repeatedly lied to the public and its shareholders about the risk to its business from climate change — and whether such actions could amount to securities fraud and violations of environmental laws.”

The New York Times reported the existence of the investigation the next day. Both articles cited people with knowledge of the inquiry, though Ms. Harris’s office did not confirm it.

But after that, no progress came to light, and no case was ever filed; eventually, the purported inquiry passed on to Ms. Harris’s successor, Xavier Becerra, who has also not brought a suit.

Ms. Harris’s comments on Wednesday drew the attention of fact-checkers like Daniel Dale of CNN, who noted that Ms. Harris had opened an investigation into the company and had sued other oil companies, but not Exxon.

Ian Sams, a spokesman for Ms. Harris, did not directly answer a question about whether she had sued Exxon Mobil. But, he said, “as attorney general she sued Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66 for pollution activities, helping win $50 million in settlements.” Ms. Harris had also filed criminal indictments against a pipeline company that “transported oil from several Exxon rigs,” he added.

On Twitter, Mr. Sams took issue with the need to pick apart Ms. Harris’s answer.

The 2016 reports on the California investigation followed a flurry of activity in other states.

In November 2015, The New York Times reported that the New York attorney general at the time, Eric T. Schneiderman, had opened an investigation into Exxon Mobil over whether its statements about climate change constituted shareholder fraud, among other issues.

The Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, also started an investigation, with the support of a number of other state attorneys general.

New York sued Exxon Mobil last year, saying the company engaged in a “longstanding fraudulent scheme” to deceive investors, analysts and underwriters “concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change regulation.”

Many news organizations have looked into the ways that fossil fuel companies have funded questionable climate science and encouraged denial of climate change. In 2015, Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times published articles highlighting Exxon Mobil’s research into the risks of climate change that suggested it had incorporated the research into its planning, even though it funded groups from the 1990s to the mid-2000s that denied serious climate risks.

The company has denied that it suppressed research, and has noted that much of the research was published in publicly available journals.

After Ms. Harris made her claim about suing Exxon Mobil, some climate activists were quick to point out that California had never done so.

Richard Wiles, the executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, a group that provides legal analysis and scientific information on climate issues, said, “Why would you believe that Harris is going to launch an investigation this time when she didn’t do it last time?”

But he said he was encouraged that claims of deception by fossil fuel companies had suddenly become part of a nationally televised political forum, calling it “an incredible transformation of the narrative in a really short period of time.”

An Exxon Mobil spokesman declined to comment.

The New York case is scheduled to begin in October. Exxon Mobil representatives have called it a “tainted, meritless investigation.”

Source link