(Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

More than a dozen state attorneys general gathered in New York earlier this week, ostensibly to announce their support for President Obama’s efforts to combat global warming and to underscore their intention to collaborate on investigations involving climate-related issues.

But the undercurrent of Tuesday’s public announcement, which included former vice president and climate activist Al Gore taking a turn at the podium, was anything but subtle: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and his counterparts from around the country vowed to “collectively, collaboratively and aggressively” investigate whether fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil have misled shareholders and the public about what they knew — and when — about the risks of climate change.

“We have heard the scientists; we know what’s happening to the planet,” Schneiderman said. “But there is confusion, sowed by those with an interest in profiting from the confusion and creating misperceptions in the eyes of the American public.”

Schneiderman began investigating ExxonMobil last fall, subpoenaing documents from the company in the wake of reporting by the Los Angeles Times and the online publication Inside Climate News that showed Exxon’s in-house researchers were concerned about climate change from fossil-fuel emissions decades ago, and yet for a long time, the company publicly raised doubts about the science. \

Schneiderman has leeway to undertake such an investigation under both consumer protection laws and New York’s Martin Act, a securities law that protects investors.

The California attorney general’s office has since initiated its own investigation, and on Tuesday, at least two more attorneys general — Maura Healey of Massachusetts and Claude Walker of the Virgin Islands — said they also had opened inquiries into Exxon’s actions.

 

Suzanne McCarron, ExxonMobil’s vice president of public and government affairs, said in a statement that the accusations against the company are “politically motivated and based on discredited reporting funded by activist organizations” and that ExxonMobil is “actively assessing all legal options.”

She added that the allegations are “preposterous” and “based on the false premise that ExxonMobil reached definitive conclusions about anthropogenic climate change before the world’s experts and before the science itself had matured, and then withheld it from the broader scientific community.” McCarron said the company openly shared findings in peer-reviewed publications and actively contributed to the work of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“The allegations repeated today are an attempt to limit free speech and are the antithesis of scientific inquiry,” McCarron said. “Left unchallenged, they could stifle the search for solutions to the real risks from climate change.”

While ExxonMobil might have been the company publicly in the crosshairs this week, the carefully coordinated announcement in New York could signal the beginning stages of a broader reckoning for big energy companies facing questions about what they knew about climate change, and when.

At least Gore seemed to think so.

Years from now, the former vice president insisted, the convening of this group of state law enforcement officials will be viewed as “a real turning point” in the efforts to hold to account companies that have deceived investors and the public about climate change. He went as far as to liken the effort to similar action taken decades ago against the tobacco industry, which despite growing health warnings long denied the harmful nature of its products, until state attorneys general led the way in forcing the industry to acknowledge it had known of the potential dangers all along.

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