ExxonMobil Refinery, Baytown TX / Roy Luck

Last year, the Los Angeles Times, along with the nonprofit Inside Climate News and the Columbia School of Journalism, published powerful investigative pieces that found that top executives at Exxon were warned of possible catastrophe from the greenhouse effect, then led efforts to block solutions while incorporating the information into their own business planning. Yesterday, multiple states’ attorneys general were joined by former Vice President Al Gore to announce that in light of inertia at the federal level, they will pursue legal campaigns at the state level, coordinating with one another.

Since those investigations, several states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts, and the Virgin Islands have launched fraud investigations into whether and to what extent the Exxon company lied to its shareholders and the public about the risk of continuing to conduct business in the Arctic, where 13 percent of the remaining undiscovered oil in the world is stored, and the effects of that upon climate change.

In a press conference on Tuesday, a coalition of 17 attorney generals from several states announced a historic effort to hold fossil fuel companies, particularly Exxon, responsible, comparing the campaign to the crusade against Big Tobacco companies decades earlier. The announcement took place during a one-day climate change conference attended by attorneys general from around the country.

Attorneys general Eric Schneiderman (NY) and William Sorrell (VT) brought the coalition together and were joined at the podium by Brian Frosh (MD), Maura Healey (MA), Mark Herring (VA) and Claude Walker (VI). The coalition is part of the 25 states that are defending the EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” to curb carbon emissions, which has been challenged in court.

“With gridlock and dysfunction gripping Washington, it is up to the states to lead on the generation-defining issue of climate change. We stand ready to defend the next president’s climate change agenda, and vow to fight any efforts to roll-back the meaningful progress we’ve made over the past eight years,” said Schneiderman. “Our offices are seriously examining the potential of working together on high-impact, state-level initiatives, such as investigations into whether fossil fuel companies have misled investors about how climate change impacts their investments and business decisions.”

Gore spoke briefly, explaining that the overall wellbeing of the global population and the environment depended on swift action. He recalled that it took more than 40 years to hold tobacco companies accountable for similarly misleading investors and the American people as to the hazards of smoking.

“We cannot continue to allow the fossil fuel industry or any industry to treat our atmosphere like an open sewer or mislead the public about the impact they have on the health of our people and the health of our planet,” said Gore. “The first-of-its-kind coalition announced today is another key step on the path to a sustainable, clean-energy future.”

The need for quick action is also particularly relevant after the U.S. Geological Survey included for the first time “human-induced” earthquakes caused by fracking in its seismic hazard forecast. Due to fracking, 7 million more people now live in designated earthquake zones, a shocking reality that illustrates the immediate costs of our actions. This manmade impact on the environment is part of the reason for the urgency in gathering the coalition.

The responses to the effort have been overwhelmingly positive among environmental groups, hailing a leadership that is finally condemning the misinformation on climate change coming from the fossil fuel industry. “We would applaud any move by the attorneys general of other states to join those of New York and California in seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for decades of deception about the harm caused by their product,” said Kathryn Mulvey, a climate accountability campaign manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists in a statement.

Similarly, May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, an organization NPQ has written about previously for its involvement in divestment efforts at universities around the world, praised the efforts but urged others to also join in. “We’ll be looking for the Department of Justice and many more cities and states to get involved. Everyone is impacted by climate change, which means everyone has a stake in these investigations. A trial of ExxonMobil and the fossil fuel industry would be even bigger than the cases against Big Tobacco,” said Boeve in a statement.

Others also thought the seriousness of the situation, particularly for ExxonMobil, which is involved in several investigations, should serve as a warning for other companies. “Today’s announcement demonstrates that rising public concerns over climate deception are well-founded. It also highlights the gravity of the situation facing Exxon and other companies that spent decades undermining climate science,” said Carroll Muffett, President of the Center for International Environmental Law, in a statement.

The same day, a collaborative of advocacy groups, including 350.org, Corporate Accountability International, and Oil Change International among others launched a site exxonknew.org to further highlight their conviction to prosecute Exxon.

“Exxon knew about climate change 35 years ago. They deceived the public, misled their shareholders, and robbed humanity of a generation’s worth of time to reverse climate change,” says the website.

Although Exxon was singled out by the AGs and the environmental groups in this announcement, the press conference also made reference to coal company Peabody Energy, with which New York has already settled a suit for making deceptive statements about financial risks related to climate change.—Shafaq Hasan