ExxonMobil will have to hand over 40 years’ worth of documents that could shed light on whether it intentionally withheld information on the impacts its products have on climate change, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its final appeal of a demand from the state of Massachusetts.
A renowned former U.S. Department of Justice attorney called the refusal a “crushing blow” to the world’s biggest privately-held fossil.
“The decision clears the way for state Attorney General Maura Healey to force the company to turn over records as her office probes whether Exxon concealed its knowledge of the role fossil fuels play in global warming,” notes InsideClimate News, whose investigative reporting helped pave the way for the legal action Exxon now faces. “Those records could open a window into the company’s internal discussions, including its handling of financial and climate data as it charted its business path going back decades.”
“The law is clear,” Healey spokesperson Chloe Gotsis. “The attorney general’s office has the authority to investigate Exxon’s conduct towards consumers and investors, and we are proceeding. The public deserves answers from this company about what it knew about the impacts of burning fossil fuels, and when.”
“Deception and delay are Exxon’s core climate strategies. Today, the court dealt the company yet another defeat in their fight to hide the fact that they have known for 50 years that their products cause climate change,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity. “Exxon’s last ditch effort to avoid turning over additional documents to investigators suggests the company has a whole lot more it’s still hiding from the public, shareholders, and policy-makers.”
Exxon had appealed to the Supreme Court after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a 2017 Massachusetts Superior Court ruling in favour of a 2016 civil investigative demand from Healey’s office.
That order sought “a trove of documents it said would shed light on what Exxon knew about the effects the burning of fossil fuels has on global warming and how regulatory efforts to slow the effect of climate change could impact the company’s bottom line,” InsideClimate writes. The demand, similar to a subpoena, said Healey was interested in records dating back to 1976 “concerning Exxon’s development, planning, implementation, review, and analysis of research efforts to study CO2 emissions (including, without limitation, from fossil fuel extraction, production, and use), and the effects of these emissions on the climate.”
For state investigators, “the biggest question those documents will answer is the extent of climate change knowledge Exxon had, when it had it, and what it did with that knowledge in making business decisions,” former state attorney general Martha Coakley told InsideClimate. “Understanding the level of information Exxon had in its possession relative to climate change is important in building a foundation for them to understand what the company did with that information in terms of marketing and business development.”