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March 3 — The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have formally acknowledged lawmakers' request for a federal investigation into Exxon Mobil Corp. over allegations that it misled investors and the public about the effects of climate change.
But it remains unclear what might happen next.
“As a courtesy,” the request has been forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine if a probe of the oil giant is warranted, according to a January letter from the DOJ's assistant attorney general for legislative affairs provided to Bloomberg BNA March 3 by the office of Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). The SEC's staff also is considering it, the commission's chairwoman Mary Jo White wrote in December, but it cannot comment on “the existence or non-existence” of any investigation.
“It's conceivable that the FBI could come back and say, ‘We don’t have a basis for proceeding with a more formal investigation at this time,' ” Carroll Muffett, who leads the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law, told Bloomberg BNA. “It is equally conceivable that the FBI could come back and say, indeed, they’re initiating an inquiry.”
Either way, the answer may not come for a long time, given the complexity of the issue and its high stakes, he said.
The letters were addressed to Lieu and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), who were among a chorus of voices calling for an investigation after a series of media reports suggested Exxon Mobil tried to downplay research from in-house scientists confirming the link between fossil fuels and climate change and the risks that it could pose.
Exxon Mobil has maintained the allegations “deliberately distort” its nearly 40-year history of climate research. “To suggest that we had reached definitive conclusions, decades before the world’s experts and while climate science was in an early stage of development, is not credible,” spokesman Scott Silvestri said in a March 3 e-mail.
The DOJ and SEC did not return requests for comment.
The attorneys general of New York and California already have launched their own inquiries into the Irving, Texas-based company.
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