Exxon Just Won That Big Climate Change Lawsuit in New York

New York state prosecutors tried to prove that Exxon misled investors by keeping two different sets of books: one for investors and another private.
December 10, 2019, 8:19pm
his April 25, 2017, file photo, shows Exxon service station signs in Nashville, Tenn. Exxon Mobil Corp. reports earnings Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

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Exxon Mobil just got off scot-free in New York State’s high-profile lawsuit, which alleged that the company lied to its investors about climate change.

New York state prosecutors tried to prove that Exxon misled investors by keeping two different sets of books — one for investors and another private — that detailed how the company was accounting for the costs of future climate change regulations that could affect the company’s bottom line. The state didn’t have to prove that the company had intentionally misled investors, but it did need to prove that the company’s misstatements had a material impact on investors.

In his 55-page ruling, Judge Barry Ostrager said the prosecution wasn’t able to provide any evidence of material impact.

“The office of the Attorney General failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that ExxonMobil made any material misstatements or omissions about its practices and procedures that misled any reasonable investor,” Ostrager wrote.

Internal Exxon research already showed the company knew as early as the 1970s that the burning of fossil fuels was heating the planet, according to a series of 2015 news stories from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times. For example, back in 1982, Exxon scientists predicted the concentration of carbon dioxide that would be in the atmosphere in 2019. They were correct.

“The oil giant never took seriously the severe economic impact that climate change regulations would have on the company, contrary to what they were telling the public,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Tuesday.

The case did, however, draw attention to the ways in which Exxon has addressed the prospect of future climate change — and forced former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was CEO of Exxon from 2006 to 2016, to testify about the company’s climate change policies (but the fake email he used, under the pseudonym Wayne Tracker, for some reason didn’t come up).

Exxon, for its part, has maintained from the beginning of the trial that the entire case was bunk, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and ultimately unhelpful in terms of addressing climate change.

“It’s almost like the Russians trying to interfere with the election,” Exxon’s lawyer, Theodore Wells, said on the first day of the trial.

“Lawsuits that waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” Exxon spokesman Casey Norton added in a statement Tuesday.

Now that the New York case has wrapped up, it’s Massachusetts’ turn to take a shot at Exxon. The state attorney general there filed suit against the company in October. The allegations in that case are more broad: that the company not only deceived investors, but consumers as well, into thinking Exxon’s products were safe for the climate.

Cover image: FILE- This April 25, 2017, file photo, shows Exxon service station signs in Nashville, Tenn. Exxon Mobil Corp. reports earnings Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)