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Has Exxon Mobil misled the public about its climate change research?

November 10, 2015 at 6:45 PM EDT
Oil giant Exxon Mobil was recently subpoenaed by New York’s attorney general in an investigation of whether the company has intentionally downplayed the risks of climate change. Judy Woodruff hears from Eric Schneiderman, attorney general of New York, and Kenneth Cohen, vice president of Public & Government Affairs for the Exxon Mobil Corporation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First, a new tack in the battle over climate change: going after energy companies for alleged financial fraud.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently subpoenaed oil giant ExxonMobil, apparently seeking documents that might show the company had downplayed the risks to profits and therefore to investors of stronger regulations on burning fossil fuels. Exxon’s history has been the subject of recent reporting by Inside Climate News, The Los Angeles Times and others.

The reporting has alleged the company misled the public about what its own scientists found about the risks of climate change and greenhouse gases.

Here is a clip of a video produced by PBS’ Frontline in collaboration with Inside Climate News, a not-for-profit journalism organization that covers energy and the environment.

MAN: Proponents of the global warming theory say that higher levels of greenhouse gases are causing world temperatures to rise and that burning fossil fuels is the reason.

The scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate.

WOMAN: We found a trail of documents that that go back to 1977.

Exxon knew carbon dioxide was increasing in the atmosphere, that combustion of fossil fuels was driving it, and that this posed a threat to Exxon. At that time, Exxon understood very quickly that governments would probably take action to reduce fossil fuel consumption. They’re smart people, great scientists, and they saw the writing on the wall.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s a Frontline excerpt.

I spoke earlier this evening with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Welcome, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Let me just begin by asking in — what is it that ExxonMobil has done, in your view, that caused you to launch this investigation?

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN, Attorney General, New York: We have been looking at the energy sector generally for a number of years, and have — had several investigations that relate to the phenomenon of global warming, climate change, and the human contribution to it.

So we have subpoenaed, issued a broad subpoena to Exxon because of public statements they have made and how they have really shifted their point of view on this in terms of their public presentation and public reporting over the last few decades.

In the 1980s, they were putting out some very good studies about climate change. They were compared to Bell Labs as being at the leadership of doing good scientific work. And then they changed tactics for some reason, and their numerous statements over the last 20 years or so that question climate change, whether it’s happening, that claim that there is no competent model for climate change.

So we’re very interested in seeing what science Exxon has been using for its own purposes, because they’re tremendously active in offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, for example, where global warming is happening at a much more rapid rate than in more temperate zones. Were they using the best science and the most competent models for their own purposes, but then telling the public, the regulators and shareholders that no competent models existed?

Things like that. We’re interested in what they were using internally and what they were telling the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what law would be violated by doing this?

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, in New York, we have laws against defrauding the public, defrauding consumers, defrauding shareholders.

We’re at the beginning of the investigation. We have to see what documents are in there, but certainly all of the claims would lie in some form of fraud.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I’m sure you’re not surprised to know Exxon is categorically denying this. The CEO, Rex Tillerson, said this week nothing could be further from the truth.

In the company’s written statement, they start out by saying for many years, they have included all the information they have about the risks of climate change in their public filings, in their reports to shareholders.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: We know that they have been issuing public statements that are at odds with that, and that they have been funding organizations that are even more aggressive climate change deniers.

And they have made numerous statements, both Exxon officials and in Exxon reports, but also through these organizations they fund, like the American Enterprise Institute, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, through their activities with the American Petroleum Institute, so directly and through other organizations, Exxon has said a lot of things that conflict with the statement that they have always been forthcoming about the realities of climate change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me read you, Attorney General Schneiderman, something else that Exxon has been saying where they reacted to some of the reporting that was done on this which is similar to what you’re describing.

They say these are allegations based on what they call deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various ExxonMobil employees to wrongly suggest that conclusions were reached decades ago by researchers. He said they were statements taken completely out of context and ignored other available statements at the same time.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, then they should welcome this investigation, because, unlike journalists, my staff is going to get to read all of the documents in context, and they will have an opportunity to explain the context of the statements and whether there are contradictions or not.

So, we’re at the very beginning stages. We don’t want to prejudge what we’re going to find, but the public record is troubling enough that we brought — that we decided we had to bring this investigation.

Another area that — where they have been active and we’re concerned about is overestimating the costs of switching to renewable energy. They have issued reports, one as recently as last year in response to shareholder requests and public requests, estimating that switching over to renewables by the end of this century would raise energy costs, to the point that they would cost — they would be 44 percent of the median income of an American family.

We want to see how they arrived at that conclusion, which we believe to be vastly overstated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you draw a line between ExxonMobil doing research and talking openly about the debate out there about what is known about climate change, and on the other hand advocating for policies that they think are going to be better for their own bottom line?

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Well, there’s nothing wrong with advocating for your own company.

What you’re not allowed to do is commit fraud. You’re not allowed to have the best climate change science that you’re using to build — in your planning of offshore oil towers in the Arctic, where you have to take into account rising sea levels and the melting of the permafrost and things like that. If you’re using that internally, but what you’re putting out to the world, directly and through these climate denial organizations, is completely in conflict with that, that’s not OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: New York State Attorney General Eric Schmitt, we thank you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And joining me now is Kenneth Cohen. He is vice president for public and government affairs with ExxonMobil Corporation.

Kenneth Cohen, welcome.

Let me just begin by asking flat out, has Exxon in any way misled or been dishonest with the public about what it knows about climate change?

KENNETH COHEN, Vice President of Public & Government Affairs, Exxon Mobil Corporation: Well, Judy, first, thank you for the invitation to come on tonight’s program.

And I also appreciate opening with that question, because the answer is a simple no. And what the facts will show is that the company has been engaged for many decades in a two-pronged activity here.

First, we take the risks of climate change seriously. And we also have been working to understand the science of climate change. And that activity started in the late ’70s and has continued up to the present time. Our scientists have produced over 150 papers, 50 of which have been part of peer-reviewed publications.

Our scientists participate in the U.N.’s climate body. We have been participating in the U.N. activities beginning in 1988, running through the present time. At the same time, we have also been engaged in discussions on policy.

And in the discussions on policy, for example, in the late ’90s, we were part of a large business coalition that opposed adoption in the U.S. of the Kyoto protocol. Now, why did we do that? We opposed the Kyoto protocol because it would have exempted from its application over two-thirds of the world’s emitters. Think about that. And that was in 1997.

Going forward, if that policy were in effect today, it would have excluded almost 80 percent of the world’s emissions. So that wasn’t a good policy approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about one of the points that the attorney general made. He said Exxon over the last few decades, in his words, has shifted tactics, from taking climate change seriously, engaging in serious research, to, he said, much more recently questioning whether it’s happening at all.

Is that an accurate, a fair description of the shift that’s taken place?

KENNETH COHEN: No, it’s not. And the facts are as follows.

We have endeavored with — to understand the science of this very complex subject, as I mentioned, beginning in the ’70s and running to the present time. This is a very complex area. This is a very complex system, climate.

What we discovered, what our scientists discovered, working in conjunction with the U.S. government, with the Department of Energy, working in conjunction with some of the leading research institutions around the world in the ’70s and the ’80s, was that the tools available the science to get a handle on the risk, these tools needed to develop, and we, for example, were part of developing, working with others, some of the complex modeling that is used today.

And, today, that work continues. Now, on the policy side, we have to remember that ExxonMobil is a large energy provider, one of the world’s largest energy companies. We have a two-pronged challenge in front of us. We produce energy that the modern world runs on.

And what we strive to do is produce that energy while at the same time reducing the environmental footprint associated with our operations and, most importantly, with consumers’ use of the energy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I think people understand that, but I think what is striking was his — was the attorney general’s comment that Exxon — what he’s concerned about and wants to know is whether Exxon was using one set of scientific models to do its work in the Arctic, for example, where Exxon has been engaged in drilling, and on the other hand telling the public, telling its shareholders a very different set of facts about the state of climate change.

KENNETH COHEN: Well, the facts will show that the company has been engaged with, not only on our own, but with — in conjunction with some of the leading researchers.

Our view of this very complex subject over the years, over the decades has mirrored that of the broader scientific community. That is to say, the discussions that have taken place inside our company, among our scientists mirror the discussions that have been taking place and the work that’s been taking place by the broader scientific community.

That’s what the facts will show.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just final question. He made a point of saying that Exxon has funded a number of organizations that he said that have been openly climate change deniers. He mentioned the American Enterprise Institute. He mentioned the American Petroleum Institute and the American Legislative Exchange.

Has Exxon been funding these organizations?

KENNETH COHEN: Well, the answer is yes. And I will let those organizations respond for themselves.

But I will tell you that what we have been engaged in, both — we have been focused on understanding the science, participating with the broader scientific community in developing the science, while at the same time participating in understanding what would be and working with policy-makers on what would be appropriate policy responses to this evolving body of science.

That’s why we were involved with large business coalitions challenging the adoption of the Kyoto protocol in the United States. And we then moved to oppose, for example, early adoption of cap-and-trade approaches in the U.S. One of the earlier approaches in the last decade would have exempted, for example, coal from its operations.

So we favor the adoption — policy-makers should consider policy and should adopt policy. We have disclosed the risks of climate change to our investors beginning in the middle part of the last decade and extending to the present time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kenneth Cohen, vice president for ExxonMobil, we appreciate having your point of view, as we do the New York attorney general.

Thank you.