By Nick Cunningham
A growing number of energy companies could come under increased scrutiny over their involvement in funding science and public relations campaigns denying the risks of climate change.
The New York attorney general made news a few weeks ago when he announced an investigation into oil major ExxonMobil (XOM) for its alleged cover up of climate science. The investigation is looking into the possibility that ExxonMobil funded and gathered hard science on climate change, and once coming to the inevitable conclusion that the burning of fossil fuels could lead to regulatory blowback, the oil major proceeded to bury the conclusions and instead fund climate-denying science to obfuscate and head off political action.
While the news could yet blow up into a significant scandal, for now it is too early to tell what the outcome could be. However, more companies could come under fire from a growing number of attorneys general over their involvement in similar practices. After all, ExxonMobil is only the largest in a long line of companies that have pushed back against climate change policy.
The money flowing from energy companies to anti-climate change think tanks and lobbying organizations is relatively well known, and the links between the two are not hard to find. Donations to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for example, is one of the more infamous relationships between oil and climate change lobbying. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) says that ExxonMobil has donated at least $1.7 million to ALEC between 1998 and 2014, a figure that CMD says is conservative. ALEC, in turn, pushed a legislative agenda to cloud the science on climate change, lobbying lawmakers across the U.S. and sowing doubts about the science of climate change.
European oil companies have taken a more proactive stance on addressing climate change. In October, for example, 10 large oil companies including BP (BP), Shell (RDS-A), and Total (TOT), signed a joint letter stating their support for UN action on climate change.
To be sure, there is a big question about whether or not the New York attorney general can actually convict the oil company of a crime. Unlike the tobacco industry – a criminal case often cited as similar – it may be more difficult to prove that the energy industry directly violated the law.
A new report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tries to put hard evidence to the fact that money from oil companies directly led to climate-denying scientific research. Using quantitative analysis, studying reports from anti-climate change organizations over 20 years, researcher Justin Farrell illustrates an “ecosystem of influence” that contributed to public confusion over climate change. Organizations that received funding from oil companies were more likely to publish papers clouding the science on climate change. In other words, the study points the finger directly at the energy industry for its role in misleading the public.
Again, it is hard to say how that will actually play out from a legal standpoint. ExxonMobil denies any wrongdoing.
But it wasn’t alone, and whether or not the attorney general has a strong case, dozens of other companies could also come under fire for similar action.
Peabody Energy, a major coal mining company, agreed to begin disclosing the risks of climate change to its investors as part of an agreement with the same New York attorney general looking into ExxonMobil.
As the world steps up efforts to tackle climate change, we could be witnessing the beginning of a trend towards greater political and legal scrutiny on the energy industry for its role in slowing action on climate change.
The legal route is merely one element of a growing political tide moving against the energy industry. Just a few weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama set a precedent by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline on climate change grounds. By all accounts, he only reached that decision after strong and persistent protest by environmental groups. Politico reported that the Koch brothers have setup an intelligence network to spy on leftist groups, in order not to be outmaneuvered again. The “Koch Intelligence Agency,” as Politico describes it, illustrates the energy industry’s rising concern over political threats.
And the international community is kicking off the Paris climate change talks this week. While few expect a landmark agreement, the momentum behind international action to crack down on carbon emissions is stronger than it was in Copenhagen in 2009. Even if no deal is reached, more regulatory action on carbon emissions can be expected in the coming years.
Obviously, oil, gas, and coal companies are not going away (at least those not near bankruptcy), but low prices are not the only existential threat facing the industry. The political movement to act on climate change is picking up steam, and the legal case against ExxonMobil perfectly illustrates that growing threat.