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Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra needs to get moving on an Exxon Mobil probe

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at a press conference on May 18. (Los Angeles Times)

has been quite outspoken about much of the work he’s done as California’s attorney general since replacing Kamala Harris, newly elected to the U.S. Senate, in late January. His office has issued more than 70 press releases — about 20 more than Harris issued over the same time frame in 2016 — touting his resolve to combat President Trump’s policies on a range of issues important to California, supporting the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into possible connections between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign, defending Obamacare subsidies and warning consumers about scams, among other updates.

One thing Becerra hasn’t uttered a peep about, though, is the status of California’s investigation into whether Exxon Mobil defrauded investors by publicly questioning the link between fossil fuels and global warming while internally accepting the science and trying to find ways to mitigate the risks to its own enterprise. Though her office never publicly acknowledged it, Harris opened an investigation after The Times and Inside Climate News, using internal Exxon Mobil documents, revealed in 2015 that the company’s public declarations conflicted with its internal practices. But that investigation, environmentalists believe, stalled when Harris decided to run for the Senate.

Becerra has not responded to entreaties by 18 Democrats in California’s congressional delegation and more than 30 environmental groups, some of which read his silence as a lack of action. Becerra’s office said last week that he “is aware of the public interest in this matter” but declined comment on whether it has an investigation underway. If it doesn’t, it should. Attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts already have gone public with their inquiries, based on state securities and fraud laws similar to those on California’s books. Among the issues: Whether Exxon Mobil, by allegedly hiding the truth, led investors to make investment decisions they otherwise might not have.

Actions by Exxon Mobil and other fossil-fuel firms to marginalize the reality of global warming and climate change have endangered the health of the planet.

This isn’t to prejudge Exxon Mobil’s guilt or innocence, although the articlesare damning. At best, the corporation’s actions appear to be devious and cynical, and may have delayed efforts to try to limit the scale of global warming. Becerra should fully and publicly join efforts to hold Exxon Mobil accountable if it did, indeed, break the law. The more pressure that can be brought to bear, the more incentive the company — with a market capitalization of $350 billion, one of the largest corporations in the country — will have to negotiate a settlement rather than dig in its heels and fight.

The investigations into Exxon Mobil’s apparently two-faced approach to climate change borrow from the years-long fight to force the tobacco industry to acknowledge that it intentionally minimized the links between smoking and cancer to protect and expand sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products. In fact, the tobacco and oil industries relied on some of the same researchers to forge their public positions denying that smoking and burning fossil fuels involved significant health or environmental risks. In the tobacco campaign, state attorneys general pursued separate investigations and lawsuits to recover from the tobacco industry tax dollars spent on caring for patients with lung cancer, emphysema and other smoking-related diseases. They ultimately won a 25-year, $246 billion settlement.

After the public revelations of Exxon Mobil’s seeming duplicity, attorneys general from more than a dozen states met in March 2016 with environmentalists charting a challenge of the oil industry following the anti-tobacco campaign playbook. By then, New York had already opened an investigation; following the meeting, Massachusetts issued its own subpoenas. After fighting off Exxon Mobil efforts to quash the subpoenas, lawyers in both states are poring over about 1 million pages of Exxon Mobil records. The U.S. Virgin Islands also issued subpoenas, but the tiny territory backed down in the face of expensive court challenges by Exxon Mobil. That’s partly why it’s imperative that California and other states with sizable legal staffs work together to counter Exxon Mobil’s deep pockets.

If the investigations find that Exxon Mobil violated no laws, then the nation will have to be satisfied with that evidence-based conclusion. But the nation also needs to understand that actions by Exxon Mobil and other fossil-fuel firms to marginalize the reality of global warming and climate change have endangered the health of the planet. Fortunately, current leaders of major oil companies have accepted the role of burning fossil fuels in global warming, and are planning a cleaner fuel future. But clearly more needs to be done, and holding Exxon Mobil — and any other energy company — accountable for past misdirections would help incentivize corporations to be more transparent, and to take a clear-eyed view of the effect of their business on the environment.