Chutzpah, thy name is ExxonMobil.
Everyone knows the oft-cited example of that brazen quality: the fictional fellow who murders both his parents and then begs the court for mercy because he is an orphan.
But ExxonMobil has just offered a real-world classic of its own in response to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s announcement that she will sue the corporation for allegedly misleading investors about its internal financial calculations regarding climate change — and consumers about the warming effects of its petroleum products.
“The Massachusetts attorney general’s office has filed a baseless complaint three years after announcing its politically motivated investigation, during which they have not interviewed a single ExxonMobil employee or gathered one piece of evidence from the company,” ExxonMobil declared in a recent statement.
That’s obviously intended to portray Healey as a headline-seeking grandstander. But here’s what the corporation doesn’t say: The reason that’s true is that ExxonMobil has refused to cooperate with her investigation. Declining to make documents or company officials available to the AG’s office, the fossil fuel giant has instead tried to thwart Healey at every legal turn.
“They filed lawsuits against me and the office to shut down our investigation,” notes Healey.
The courts, however, have sided with the AG. And so she will now proceed with her lawsuit, which alleges that ExxonMobil has led investors down the primrose petroleum path by failing to accurately factor the costs of climate change — including government policies to move energy consumption from fossil fuels to renewables — into its internal financial calculus. Such a failure means ExxonMobil’s expenses will be greater than the company represents to investors, while its oil-and-gas assets may prove significantly less valuable, her suit says. The AG contends the company has misled consumers as well, by suggesting its gasoline products are somehow a solution rather than a contributor to climate change.
Although the Commonwealth stands to benefit financially in a big way if her suit succeeds, Healey says the more important goal is getting ExxonMobil “to stop engaging in misleading practices.” Otherwise, the market’s price signals won’t work as they should, which is to say, increasingly point investors and consumers toward renewable energy.
“The health of this planet depends on business, companies, energy producers, government, coming together to find real solutions,” she says. “But you can’t find a real solution if the formula is fake.”
This case interests me for another reason as well. As is now established, Exxon, the predecessor to ExxonMobil, understood as early as the late 1970s that carbon dioxide emissions were the leading cause of climate change. As the AG’s office says in its complaint, Exxon also knew that “if actions to address climate change were delayed until the effects of climate change were discernible, then it was likely that such actions would occur too late to be effective.”
How different ExxonMobil would look now if it had sounded that warning, loudly and publicly. Instead, it appears Exxon joined other fossil fuel companies in efforts to create public uncertainty regarding the science. As part of that effort, it contributed millions to the Global Climate Coalition, which determinedly tried to sow doubt about CO2 cause and global-warming effect.
We have now arrived at a time where climate scientists say the window for effective action is closing. Yet we have a president who is determined to undo his predecessor’s climate initiatives. And whose EPA and Interior Department are in the satchel to the oil, gas, and coal industries.
Healey’s lawsuit is a creative application of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Law. I’m not a legal expert, but to my eye, her 205-page brief builds a strong case. Given the catastrophic threat of climate change and Exxon’s past efforts to muddy climate facts clearly understood by its own experts, it strikes me as a completely appropriate endeavor.
ExxonMobil is a behemoth with immense power and little shame — but they are about to discover just how formidable a foe they have in Maura Healey.Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.