In a Complaint filed on behalf of the People of the State of New York by its Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood, Exxon is accused of misleading investors on the long-term cost of climate change for the company. Specifically, the company claimed that, since 2007, it had considered the coming government regulations impacting its business operations and was adjusting its profitability forecasts to reflect that reality while not actually taking such action. The areas impacted by the misrepresentation are cited as “investment decisions, business planning, company oil and gas reserves and resource base assessments, evaluations of whether long-term assets are impaired…and estimates of future demand for oil and gas.”
Accurately representing the costs of greenhouse gas regulation (termed “proxy costs” in the Complaint) is particularly important for fossil fuel companies like Exxon since, as also detailed in the lawsuit, a large number of the company’s shareholders invest for the long term. The result of fraud-laced forecasts leads to stock that is overvalued, and from this, millions of individuals may be negatively impacted through retirement savings, college funds, and other similar investments. The Complaint cites Exxon’s active solicitation of long-term investors to further impress on the egregious nature of the misrepresentative activity.
In its “Prayer for Relief”, the lawsuit seeks several actions in response to Exxon’s alleged activities: 1) Prevent the company from engaging in any further fraudulent activity; 2) Review the company’s relevant activities and resulting impact; and 3) Award damages and restitution resulting from the alleged activities. In other words, the Complaint seeks an order requiring Exxon to “tell investors the truth” about the cost of being in the carbon business and pay back anything it gained by lying. The information in the Complaint is the result of significant investigative effort; however, similar suits against oil companies have yet to succeed in climate-related damage awards to date.
While addressing the role of oil-based energy companies may face significant hurdles in the legal realm, the courts still play an important role for environmental activists. For example, the National Resources Defense Council, Inc., while not directly involved in this particular case, regularly pushes for remedial action in cases involving pollution, environmental destruction, and wildlife conservation. As one of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world, the lawsuit against Exxon holds the potential to set an important precedent in the battle for holding company’s accountable to their role in carbon emissions.
Since the Complaint was filed, Exxon has denied the allegations. A long court process can be expected, and it may expand to include other states and oil companies due to the global nature of the charges.