Last year, an investigation by InsideClimate News found that scientists employed by Exxon Mobil warned the company about the connection between burning fossil fuels and a warming climate all the way back in 1977. Even more damning, reporters found that the company systematically ignored what it knew, even allegedly misleading the public about the science as it continued to pump carbon into the atmosphere unabated. Exxon, one of the most profitable companies in history, was handsomely rewarded for the subterfuge. But now, the oil giant may have to answer to for their actions. To the FBI.
InsideClimate News now reports that the U.S. Department of Justice has forwarded a request for a federal investigation to the FBI’s criminal division from two Democratic members of Congress. In a letter to Reps. Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, Joseph Campbell, the DOJ’s assistant director for criminal investigation, wrote:
As a courtesy, we have forwarded your correspondence to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI is the investigative arm of the Department, upon which we rely to conduct the initial fact finding in federal cases. The FBI will determine whether an investigation is warranted.
This doesn’t mean we’ll see the well-heeled executives at Exxon in shackles any time soon. John Marti, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, called the Justice Department’s response a “punt,” according to InsideClimate News, and said that the DOJ “appears to be reluctant to engage in this matter.”
But should the FBI decide to look into Exxon, the future for the company could be bleak. “This is turning into a nightmare for Exxon,” wrote 350’s co-founder Jamie Henn in a statement, “No company wants to hear their name and ‘criminal’ in the same sentence. This FBI investigation must quickly lead back to a full Department of Justice inquiry and, ultimately, legal action. There’s too much public pressure and action by state Attorney General’s for this case to disappear into a bureaucratic blackhole. Exxon knew about climate change, they misled the public, and it’s time for them to held to criminal account.”
But will they be? In a nation where white-collar criminals are more likely to see Christmases bonuses than jail time, the idea that anyone from Exxon will be held accountable seems unlikely. Then again, at least one U.S. politician is intent on changing this culture: Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently released a report on criminal justice and the lack thereof among corporate criminals. “The failure to prosecute big, visible crimes has a corrosive effect on the fabric of democracy and our shared belief that we are all equal in the eyes of the law,” wrote Warren.
Clearly, as the justice system operates now — when nonviolent drug offenders get more jail time than major polluters — we aren’t all equal in the eyes of the law. Maybe a probe into Exxon will be the start.