Exxon escaped in this week’s NY ruling. Does this mean they’ve won?

Oh man do they wish.

Alright, folks. The New York Attorney General’s case against Exxon for securities fraud didn’t go quite as planned. But it’s not the actual end of the world.

Here’s why: this ruling doesn’t in any way, shape, or form let Exxon off the hook in more than a dozen other lawsuits seeking to hold Big Oil accountable for their role in the climate crisis, or stop elected officials and candidates for office, advocates, journalists, and citizens like you from pushing for accountability and justice. The fight goes on, and we’ll explain—but first, a bit of background.

What happened?

Over the course of a three-week trial, New York’s Attorney General argued that Exxon lied to its shareholders about the risks that climate change posed to its financial future, costing them big (up to $1.6 billion big!). The oil giant actually did admit to keeping what amounts to two sets of books on climate costs: one it used internally to assess business opportunities amid climate-related regulatory constraints, and a second it used to show investors. The company claimed this two-faced bookkeeping was not only intentional, but legitimate and fair. You can read more about their cockamamie argument here.

As Big Oil tends to do when it comes to everything except addressing the greatest crisis facing humanity, the company really committed. As yours truly personally witnessed, Exxon’s former CEO Rex Tillerson (a.k.a. Wayne Tracker) took the stand on October 30, making one of his first major public appearances since he was… that’s right, Trump’s Secretary of State. Tillerson repeated that Exxon’s bookkeeping practices were perfectly legitimate, boasting that as CEO he introduced a shiny new management system to deal with the risks posed by carbon emissions, which he and the company took “quite seriously” (cue references to investments in algae, “breakthrough technologies” and other “economically feasible” forays into… greenwashing, also known as fraud.)

Those assurances are, shall we say, quite at odds with the thorough and conclusive documentation that Exxon lied to the public for decades about the risks it learned its business would cause to the climate. And the company is still lying—in its phony ads that misrepresent its commitment to clean energy alternatives; in its continued funding of climate denialist organizations that actively work to derail climate policy; and in its claims of support for so-called climate solutions, like carbon taxes they know to be ineffective but that provide the most fossil-fuel-friendly path forward, regardless of the fallout for communities facing the astronomical climate costs Big Oil dumped onto them. The reality is that the industry’s existing plans for fossil fuel projects over the next decade would blast us past two degrees of warming and into irreversible climate catastrophe

Who else gets away with acting this way and is then praised for their irreplaceable contributions to modern life?

Image credit: Giphy

So yes—in the end, Judge Barry Ostrager nixed New York’s securities fraud case, concluding that while Exxon did in fact use one price for carbon internally, and another with investors, the state failed to show how this duplicity harmed any investors. 

But that doesn’t negate the fact that Exxon’s business is the causenot the solutionto a crisis that costs the rest of us dearly, and that it can still be held accountable for the price of its lies. In his decision, Judge Ostrager wrote as much:

Exxon would love to ignore Judge Ostrager’s words and act like this ruling is complete vindication. Not surprisingly, the company is using the opportunity as a bullhorn to delegitimize climate lawsuits as a whole (the oil giant doth protest way, way too much). But the reality is that their victory is an incredibly narrow one, with no bearing on their role in the climate crisis—or responsibility to help clean up the mess.

In other words, Exxon is very far from off the hookand the fight to hold them accountable for climate damages is far from over.

Image credit: Giphy

Exxon shouldn’t get too comfortable doing victory laps while 14 other lawsuits are already in the works to recover the costs of rebuilding and adapting to climate change. The fight to take Big Tobacco or Big Pharma to task for their misdeeds wasn’t won in one go, or even a few. Like all worthwhile pursuits of justice, those took time—with quite a few hurdles in between. But anyone committed to taking on these corporate goliaths knew that the cost of doing nothing would far outweigh any obstacles they might face. 

This won’t be an easy battle, or a fast one. But a much-needed reckoning for the most destructive corporate scam of all time—not to mention a democracy where truth prevails and a society in which no one is above the law—is what’s at stake.

Anger Into Action

This week, you can send a message to your state’s Attorney General urging them to investigate Exxon’s decades of deception on climate (if you live in Massachusetts, thank AG Healey for filing a securities and consumer fraud suit against Exxon; if you live in Rhode Island, thank AG Neronha for holding the industry accountable for rising climate costs in the state).

Have other climate accountability actions you think readers should take? Email me at emily@climateintegrity.org so I can include them next time!

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