WASHINGTON -- The Department of Justice has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to evaluate whether ExxonMobil violated federal laws by publicly denying climate change for years.
Reps. Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, both Democrats from California, asked the DOJ to investigate Exxon last fall, after reporting from Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times indicated that Exxon's experts knew about the dangers of burning fossil fuels, and still publicly worked to undermine climate science. In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in October, the congressmen asked the department to look into whether Exxon violated federal laws such as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act by "organizing a sustained deception campaign disputing climate science and failing to disclose truthful information to investors and the public."
DOJ responded in a letter Inside Climate News made public on Wednesday, saying that it had forwarded the matter to the FBI's Criminal Investigation Division to conduct initial fact-finding and "determine whether an investigation is warranted."
Lieu said Thursday he considers even that to be a positive signal, since DOJ could have denied the request or simply acknowledged receipt of his letter without doing anything to follow up. "To me this is a good step forward, because they are sending it to the investigative arm to start looking into this matter," Lieu told The Huffington Post.
He said that he hopes an investigation would yield more information about what the top brass at Exxon knew about climate change, when they knew it, and what they did about it. "If the facts warrant it, I would hope for a prosecution," he said.
Lieu said he believes what happened at Exxon is similar to what tobacco companies did in denying the science linking smoking and cancer -- "lying to the American people to better sell their product." The DOJ used the RICO law to prosecute tobacco companies in the late 1990s.
Lieu has also asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate whether Exxon broke any laws in its filing to the commission.
Environmental groups have cheered on the call for an investigation. "ExxonMobil's climate deceit, built on decades of knowingly false statements to federal and state officials and the public, was no garden-variety consumer fraud," said Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, in a statement Thursday. "It cries out for FBI scrutiny because it has put lives and property at risk on a scale equal to the corporation's global reach."
Both Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said that there should be a federal investigation into Exxon's climate record.
The company has said that the reporting on their climate work mischaracterizes its position.
Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said via email that the company has included information about the business risk of climate change in its security filings and shareholder reports for "many years."
"Media and environmental activists have used publicly available materials from the company’s archives to deliberately distort ExxonMobil’s nearly 40-year history of climate research, which was conducted publicly in conjunction with the Department of Energy, academics and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change," Jeffers said. "To suggest that we had reached definitive conclusions, decades before the world’s experts and while climate science was in an early stage of development, is not credible."