Just as the City of Boston issued yet another report about the city’s vulnerability to potentially devastating climate change impacts from fossil fuel use, ExxonMobil and its surrogates are attacking anyone with the temerity to scrutinize the oil giant’s climate deceit.
The Commonwealth’s formidable Attorney General, Maura Healey, is the latest to become an ExxonMobil target. This time, we suspect the corporation may have met its match.
At issue is Healey’s investigation – in concert with nearly twenty of her counterparts in other states – of ExxonMobil’s deliberate deceit on climate science that was brought to light by reports published last year by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times. Using the company’s own internal
records, the reports found that, as early as the 1970s, ExxonMobil’s own scientists knew the burning of fossil fuels was likely to cause global temperature rise with potentially devastating consequences for our economy, health, and environment. In an effort to protect its own business model – and at tremendous cost to society – the company then spent hundreds of millions of dollars sowing doubt about climate science and blocking action to address climate change.
The last time we saw public deception on such a massive scale was with Big Tobacco’s decades-long campaign denying that smoking causes cancer.
In its lawsuit to stop Attorney General Healey’s probe, ExxonMobil argues that there is nothing to investigate because the company hasn’t “sold fuel, owned a retail location or sold securities in Massachusetts in the past four years.” ExxonMobil’s politician-friends on the House Science Committee have complained to Healey that her probe violates Exxon’s free speech rights – the same argument made by the tobacco industry in the 1980s.
Both of these “defenses” are absurd. Courts roundly rejected the “First Amendment defense” when Healey’s predecessors took on the tobacco industry’s obfuscation of cancer science. No company has a Constitutional right to commit fraud by misleading the public about the harm associated with its product (in this case, the heat-trapping gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels). And, Massachusetts is a place where Exxon’s climate deceit is putting local communities and the Boston Harbor estuary in real peril.
ExxonMobil has a storage facility along the Mystic River in Everett, Massachusetts, where it has, illegally and for years, used the community and the Mystic River as a dumping ground for its toxic and hazardous waste.
The communities that host the Everett facility are mostly people of color whose median income is less than $50,000 per year. One in ten families there lives below the poverty line. While ExxonMobil rakes in upwards of $600 billion a quarter even in a bad year, it hasn’t invested a penny in preparing this facility to withstand the inevitable consequences of climate change – including bigger and more powerful storms that could flood the facility and send a catastrophic spill of oil and dangerous toxins into neighborhood streets and residents’ basements. Worse yet, the facility regularly violates the law now even in the absence of extreme weather.
Unfortunately, it is not the first time that Exxon has put people living near its facility along the Mystic in danger. In 2006, ExxonMobil spilled 10,000 gallons of oil into the river. Then, too, ExxonMobil denied wrongdoing for months until the U.S. Attorney General brought suit. ExxonMobil exhibits a pattern of corporate indifference to the safety of communities and the environment, made plain to the world in 1989 when Exxon’s lax safety culture resulted in its drunk sea captain grounding the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
Lessons learned? Apparently not.
So Attorney General Healey is right to ask whether there’s fire behind the smoke of ExxonMobil‘s climate deceit; whether any of Exxon’s lies violate the duties public companies have to shareholders, consumers, regulatory agencies, and communities at risk under current law. Conservation Law Foundation has already served notice that Exxon’s repeated, sworn filings about the Everett facility’s readiness for storm events are false statements in violation of federal environmental laws.
Leaders in law enforcement often face backlash from entrenched special interests and corporate lawbreakers. The Commonwealth is fortunate to have an Attorney General with the courage to undertake this probe, and the wisdom to follow the facts wherever they lead.
Bradley M. Campbell is the President of Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), an energy and environmental advocacy organization serving all of New England.
Kelsey Wirth is the co-founder and Chair of the Board of Mothers Out Front, a national grass-roots advocacy organization.