UPDATE (3/16/16): The Wall Street Journal editorial board has one-upped the Review-Journal in egregiously distorting a potential federal investigation of Exxon and other oil companies for intentionally misleading shareholders and the public about climate change. In a March 15 editorial, the Journal falsely claimed that the Department of Justice may “throw people in jail for scientific skepticism,” and managed to do so without ever uttering the words “Exxon” or “oil companies.” A March 15 Washington Times op-ed by Southeastern Legal Foundation chief operating officer Todd Young also attacked the potential investigation without mentioning oil companies, falsely alleging that the investigation could broadly apply to “those who question human-caused climate change science,” when it would actually examine evidence that oil companies knew of reality of climate change but publicly sowed doubt about climate science in order to protect their profits.
In discussing a possible investigation into whether ExxonMobil deceived the public through a campaign to sow uncertainty about climate science research, the Las Vegas Review-Journal misstated the issue as one of beliefs: “The last time we checked, there was no crime in being skeptical of climate change.” But the reason for a potential Department of Justice investigation is that evidence shows the company intentionally misled the public about the role fossil fuels play in climate change.
The March 13 editorial takes issue with a proposed federal investigation into what Exxon knew about climate change from its research and what the company chose to do with that information. The Review-Journal disputes that Exxon could be in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) -- as charged by several House Democrats. The editorial misrepresents the alleged RICO violation, saying there “is no crime in being skeptical of climate change” and that an investigation would be “a trampling of [Exxon's] First Amendment rights” (emphasis added):
As reported by Kate Sheppard of the Huffington Post, Reps. Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, House Democrats from California who were persuaded by environmental groups' smear tactics, approached the Department of Justice last fall to look into whether ExxonMobil violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act or any other federal laws. The company was allegedly “organizing a sustained deception campaign disputing climate science and failing to disclose truthful information to investors and the public.”
Rep. Lieu says he believes the company was working publicly to undermine climate science, and that its actions are on par with tobacco companies who were guilty of “lying to the American people” by denying the link between smoking and cancer in order “to better sell their product.” Just as the DOJ used RICO law to prosecute tobacco companies in the late 1990s, Rep. Lieu says he would “would hope for a prosecution” of ExxonMobil if the facts warrant it.
If the FBI decides to open an investigation, the move would be motivated entirely by political considerations. The last time we checked, there is no crime in being skeptical of climate change or advocating for policies that aid ExxonMobil's interests. An investigation would simply be Democrats and the environmental lobby seeking a big scalp.
Furthermore, such an investigation is a trampling of First Amendment rights. ExxonMobil is under no obligation to worship at the altar of climate change, nor is any other company or individual. There is no constitutional rationale for punishing the company for its actions relating to dubious climate change claims, and the FBI shouldn't humor Democrats or environmental lobbyists any longer on this issue. There should be no further investigation.
The case against Exxon would be based not on the company's “skepticism,” but on whether Exxon violated the law. Sharon Eubanks -- a former U.S. attorney who helped prosecute a RICO case against Big Tobacco for its denial of the health risks of smoking -- told ThinkProgress that a similar RICO case could be made against Exxon for its role in misleading the public about its research on climate change:
“The cigarette companies actively denied the harm of cigarette smoking, and concealed the results of what their own research developed,” she said. “The motivation was money, and to avoid regulation.”
Based on the revelations about ExxonMobil, Eubanks said the Department of Justice should consider investigating whether similar collusion occurred among big fossil fuel companies and other high-carbon-emitting industries that would profit from climate denial.
“It appears to me, based on what we know so far, that there was a concerted effort by Exxon and others to confuse the public on climate change,” Eubanks said. “They were actively denying the impact of human-caused carbon emissions, even when their own research showed otherwise.”
Independent reports into Exxon's handling of its climate research reinforce Eubanks claim that there could be reason to investigate Exxon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News published a six-part series detailing its eight-month investigation into what Exxon knew using “primary sources including internal company files dating back to the late 1970s [and] interviews with former company employees.”
InsideClimate's investigation showed that “Exxon confirmed global warming consensus in 1982 with in-house climate models.” Despite the company's scientific confirmation of climate change and fossil fuels' role, Exxon “sowed doubt about climate science for decades by stressing uncertainty.”
The Los Angeles Times, in conjunction with the Energy and Environmental Reporting Project at Columbia University, came to similar conclusions surrounding what Exxon knew and how its subsequent cover-up deceived the public. The Times' reporting showed that the oil giant spent millions to raise questions about climate science, only to return to what it had learned in the '80s by admitting in 2007 that fossil fuels were playing a significant role in climate change:
From 1998 to 2005, Exxon contributed almost $16 million to at least 43 organizations to wage a campaign raising questions about climate change, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental activist group. Greenpeace has estimated that Exxon spent more than $30 million in that effort.
Today, the effect of climate change is widely accepted. Average global temperatures have risen approximately 1.5 degrees since 1880, and the sea level has risen at a rate of 0.06 of an inch per year and is accelerating. Moreover, Arctic sea ice coverage is shrinking so drastically that last August, National Geographic had to redraw its atlas maps.
In 2007, the company, for the first time since the early 1980s, publicly conceded that climate change was occurring and that it was in large part the result of the burning of fossil fuels.
“There was a fork in the road. They had the opportunity to make a decision to go one way or the other way,” said Martin Hoffert, an Exxon consultant in the 1980s and professor emeritus of physics at New York University. “If Exxon had listened to its scientists and endorsed our research -- and not started that campaign -- it would have had, in my opinion, an enormous impact.”