NEW YORK - Top law enforcement officials from states around the nation have banded together to protect progress on climate change by taking on the fossil fuel industry.
Democratic attorneys general from 15 states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands joined with former Vice President Al Gore, who praised a "first-of-its-kind" joint effort to reduce carbon emissions, hold polluters accountable for fraudulent claims, and defend the Environmental Protection Agency's "Clean Power Plan" against legal challenges.
"We cannot continue to allow the fossil fuel industry or any industry to treat our atmosphere like an open sewer or mislead the public about the impact they have on the health of our people and the health of our planet," Gore said.
The participating states are looking at working together on key initiatives related to climate change, including investigations into whether fossil fuel companies misled the public on the impact of climate change.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is conducting an ongoing investigation into whether the ExxonMobil Corp. misled the public and its shareholders on the business risks posed by climate change, assured coalition members that his office will pursue the matter as any other case of fraud.
"They have told the public for years that there were no competent models ... to project climate patterns, including those in the Arctic," Schneiderman said. "And we know that they paid millions of dollars to support organizations that put out propaganda denying that we can predict or measure the effects of fossil fuel on our climate."
The oil and gas giant in question, for its part, has denied any wrongdoing. According to a statement provided by International law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP: "ExxonMobil fully evaluates and mitigates risks to the viability of its assets as a result of public climate change policies."
Schneiderman said his office is approaching the case cautiously, and acknowledged that a fight against Exxon and its corporate allies will require a multistate investigative effort, in part to push back against attempts to discredit investigators' claims.
Already, California and Massachusetts' attorneys general have announced they will join New York in the probe against Exxon.
"We have a moral obligation to act," said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. "Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change should be — must be — held accountable."
Big oil = big tobacco
The former vice president compared the states' efforts to the big tobacco lawsuit of the mid-1990s, when the tobacco industry was accused of misleading the public on the cancer risks of cigarettes. Gore added that it took 40 years — beginning in 1964 — for tobacco companies to be held accountable.
"We do not have 40 years to continue suffering the consequences of the fraud allegedly being committed by the fossil fuel companies, where climate change is concerned," Gore said.
In addition to key state attorneys general — representing California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia — the U.S. Virgin Islands (a U.S. island territory) joined the climate change coalition partly out of concern for its "survival."
With increasingly destructive hurricanes, "people begin to say, why am I living here?'" said U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Earl Walker.
"It's troubling that as the polar caps melt, you have companies that are looking at that as an opportunity to go and drill — to go and get more oil," Walker said. "How selfish can you be?"
Walker said it is the coalition's priority to do something transformational and end its residents' reliance on fossil fuels once and for all.