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The US oil major ExxonMobil once faced just two state attorneys general who were investigating whether or not the company lied about climate change. But, the number of top prosecutors questioning the company grew to seventeen this week, just as another major philanthropic organization said it would divest from ExxonMobil.
The New York Attorney General's office launched in November an investigation into whether ExxonMobil is guilty of making false or misleading statements to investors about climate change and its potential impact on the company's bottomline.
"Climate change is real — it is a threat to all the people we represent," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said at a press conference this week, joined by AGs from Massachusettes and the Virgin Islands. "If there are companies … committing fraud in an effort to maximize their short-term profits at the expense of the people they represent, we want to find out about it and we want to prosecute it to the full extent of the law."
California Attorney General Kamala Harris is also investigating ExxonMobil over fraud allegations.
Together, attorneys general from California, Connecticut, the District Of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington State, and the US Virgin Islands have agreed to coordinate legal inquiries into the company.
As AGs line up against ExxonMobil, the Rockefeller Family Fund, which has long invested in the oil industry, pledged to divest from the company, along with all of its holdings in the fossil fuel industry.
"We would be remiss if we failed to focus on what we believe to be morally reprehensible conduct on the part of ExxonMobil," it said in a statement. "Evidence appears to suggest that the company worked since the 1980s to confuse the public about climate change's march, while simultaneously spending millions to fortify its own infrastructure against climate change's destructive consequences."
Exxon said it wasn't surprised that the Rockefeller Family Fund had divested from the company, saying it was "conspiring against us" by funding journalistic investigations of its research into climate change, which were published by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times.
"ExxonMobil believes the risk of climate change is clear and warrants action," Alan T. Jeffers, a company spokesman, said in an email. "ExxonMobil is taking action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in its operations, helping consumers reduce their emissions, supporting research, and participating in constructive dialogue on policy options."
But the company has resisted shareholder efforts to evaluate the risks of climate change.
Last week the US Securities and Exchange Commission ruled that shareholders in ExxonMobil should be allowed to vote on a resolution requiring the company to publish an annual assessment of how climate change policies may impact the company's long-term finances. The company board had refused to allow a vote on the resolution, which was submitted by the New York State Common Retirement Fund.
If Exxon advises its shareholders to vote against the resolution it will put pressure on the New York pension fund and other investors to divest from the company, said Jamie Henn, a spokesman for 350.org.
"If Exxon says we don't care and screw you guys, New York, I think, would have an obligation to take money out," he said.
Related: A New Front Has Opened Up in the Legal Battle Over Climate Change
Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, said Exxon has prevailed in fighting off previous shareholder resolutions, but the latest resolution, along with the Rockefeller announcement, could be indicative of a bigger threat to fossil fuel companies.
The Rockefeller Family Fund is by no means the biggest foundation in the country but it's a prestigious one, said Brulle. And because it seeks in part to promote a sustainable society, the obvious contradiction of profiting from a company that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions is being called out, he said.
Brulle said he's watching to see if larger foundations follow suit, paving a rough road ahead for the oil-and-gas industry, which he thinks has claimed the moral high ground because it provides energy for the country.
"There's lots of other ways to provide energy and the way you're doing it is to destroy the atmosphere, the planet and the future," he said. "The license to operate without oversight or controversy that the oil companies have had for decades is coming to an end."
Follow Ciara O'Rourke on Twitter: @ciaraorourke