ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the world, is currently facing three separate investigations and nine lawsuits regarding its alleged history of climate deception — though you wouldn’t know it from looking at their financial disclosure forms.
That’s because, despite agreeing to disclose the risks posed by climate change and government climate action earlier this year, Exxon still hasn’t specifically named either the climate investigations or climate lawsuits as material risks in any of its reports or financial disclosures.
In its annual report recently filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Exxon notes “a variety of claims” that have been made against the company, but does not list specific climate lawsuits or investigations in the report.
Instead, the company simply concludes more broadly that it “does not believe the ultimate outcome of any currently pending lawsuit against ExxonMobil will have a material adverse effect upon the Corporation’s operations, financial condition, or financial statements taken as a whole.”
Exxon did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment at the time of publication.
While it’s up to a company to decide whether a particular legal action will have a material impact on its financial health, Jill Fisch, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, explained that companies sometimes choose not to disclose particular lawsuits or litigation because they fear doing so might be taken as a concession that the company might lose in court.
“Companies say that they don’t want to provide more details because they don’t want to comprise their litigation position,” Fisch, an expert in securities law, told ThinkProgress.
But Exxon has hardly been silent about the lawsuits and investigations outside of its financial disclosures — the company has launched a concerted effort to stymie any legal actions against the company in federal court.
Exxon is currently under investigation by both the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general, after a series of articles published in 2015 by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed that Exxon reportedly knew about the risks of burning fossil fuels as early as 1970s, and yet continued to mislead investors. The company is also named as a defendant in nine separate city and county lawsuits seeking to recoup damages related to climate change.
In response to the investigations and lawsuits, Exxon has filed a motion in federal court seeking to paint the investigations and lawsuits as a “conspiracy” aimed at undermining its First Amendment Rights. Industry trade groups — associated with Exxon through financial donations — have also launched a public relations campaign aimed at painting the investigations and lawsuits as activist actions untethered from legal precedent.
“Exxon clearly sees these legal cases as a risk, or they wouldn’t be spending so much time and money fighting them,” Kert Davies, director of Climate Investigations Center, told ThinkProgress via email. “One would think that risk assessment would be salient information for investors.”
Other companies involved in the lawsuits have made the decision to disclose the actions to their investors. Last March, Chevron — also named in the city and county lawsuits — became the first oil company to explicitly name climate investigations and lawsuits as a potentially material risk to investors in a disclosure.
This year, ConocoPhillips followed suit, stating in its annual financial report that “in 2017 and early 2018, cities and/or counties in California and New York have filed lawsuits against oil and gas companies, including ConocoPhillips, seeking compensatory damages and equitable relief to abate alleged climate change impacts. ConocoPhillips will be vigorously defending against these lawsuits.”