Why the government couldn’t stop investigating whether ExxonMobil is guilty of violating the law

In 2010, ExxonMobil committed to a course of action that would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions:

“We have made the commitment that we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2017.”

Exxon’s commitment came in the wake of the company’s purchase of two oil fields, related pipelines and a refining division, along with a cache of confidential documents. As part of the acquisition, environmental workers were ordered to destroy evidence related to its practices.

Almost five years later, the government’s initial response to a report by lawyers representing communities who say the company is responsible for climate change is essentially to let the law take its course.

“Although a number of its findings indicate that Exxon might have been more transparent in communicating its research and knowledge about the link between the emissions of fossil fuels and the rise in global temperatures, the [government] did not find evidence that Exxon has violated any law,” the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General said in a report released on Thursday.

The report was written by investigators in the department’s inspector general’s office who had previously conducted interviews with about 50 current and former Exxon and its employees. The document outlines the findings of the investigators’ interviews. But it doesn’t say anything that should surprise anyone.

Why? You are probably less surprised if you had already read about the history of Exxon Mobil and what its CEO, Rex Tillerson, once said about climate change. “We don’t know what’s causing the climate to change. And the evidence that it’s changing is not conclusive,” he told an industry audience in 2013. “If it were conclusively shown that carbon dioxide is causing climate change, then clearly there would need to be regulatory action to change it.”

Here is how the regulators interpreted this climate change talking point:

“Exxon senior executives, including Tillerson, also generally spoke of ‘biased science’ and the ‘continued variability of climate,’ suggesting that climate change ‘may not necessarily be a permanent global trend.’ “

Readers who are familiar with the history of environmental activism won’t be surprised to learn that the attorneys for those communities want to go after the company in federal court. “The Department of Interior would be derelict in its duty and duty of due process of law if it did not investigate this matter further,” the attorneys wrote in a petition to an independent review board in California last year.

The government won’t say that the reports found evidence that Exxon violated any laws, the way it did with another company, now-defunct Enron Corp.

Perhaps the best indicator of how hard it is for the federal government to act is that a similar investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission found no wrongdoing.

The government’s report does acknowledge that some Exxon scientists advised the company to market its products as clean-energy choices in the 1970s, a departure from the company’s previous emphasis on natural gas. “The department was not able to find any evidence that Exxon’s internal messaging changed as a result of the heightened scrutiny of its business interests regarding climate change,” the report says.

That won’t reassure the plaintiffs. In their petition for review, they told the Justice Department to bring a criminal or civil suit against Exxon. “The Department of Interior’s report that Exxon committed no wrongdoing is especially troubling because it cannot discern what enforcement action could be taken against Exxon – or BP and Chevron – if it violated the law,” they wrote.

Besides the environmental groups who have sued Exxon, which is asking the court to dismiss the lawsuits, nine major universities have sued Exxon and its former chief, Lee Raymond, over climate change.

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