Xavier Becerra, now attorney general of California, has stayed on the sideline of the state probes of Exxon.California's Xavier Becerra has not yet given a thumbs up to a climate investigation of Exxon. Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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By Jennifer Dorroh

While California Attorney General Xavier Becerra remained reticent to say whether his state is investigating ExxonMobil for potentially misleading shareholders and the public on climate change, he pledged Tuesday, “We’re going to do our due diligence to make sure California is protected.”

Becerra spoke during a gathering of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington DC, and continued his noncommittal public stance on joining two states that have already launched probes of the oil giant, New York and Massachusetts.

“We have spoken to those who have taken an interest and to those who have material evidence,” Becerra said. “We’re fully aware of the Exxon matter.”  

According to a spokesperson for Becerra, “It’s our policy at the California Department of Justice not to confirm or deny any potential or ongoing investigation.”  

Environmental groups and opinion writers, including the Los Angeles Times editorial board, are pressuring Becerra to launch his own investigation into whether Exxon committed fraud by misrepresenting what it knows about climate change risks.

“In failing to take on Exxon’s climate deception, Xavier Becerra stands to undercut California’s vaunted leadership in global efforts to combat climate change,” wrote May Boeve, executive director and cofounder of advocacy group 350.org.

In a letter last month, representatives from 34 organizations urged Becerra to investigate Exxon.

The pressure comes as Becerra is campaigning for his first full term as attorney general. He has been serving in the role since Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to fill out the term of Kamala Harris after she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016.

At the time of the transition, California seemed poised to pursue the Exxon investigation. Shortly before leaving office, Harris told the Los Angeles Times that California would in fact join New York and Massachusetts in the probe.

“California Attorney General Kamala Harris is investigating whether ExxonMobil repeatedly lied to the public and its shareholders about the risk to its business from climate change—and whether such actions could amount to securities fraud and violations of environmental law,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Exxon has denied any wrongdoing and has vigorously fought the probes. The company sued to halt the New York and Massachusetts investigations, a move Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called “unprecedented.”

“Exxon won’t relent,” Healey said. While her state has been at the forefront of the probe, she insists she is not seeking a specific outcome, but simply wants answers. “We make no prejudgments. We would like to get on with this,” she said.

While advocates say California could be a valuable ally in seeking answers, Healey is not publicly pressuring Becerra to join the probe. “There are times when we’ve had successful results when many states have been involved, and times when we’ve had successful results when just a few are involved,” she said.

Becerra and Healey spoke about Exxon in response to questions from Climate Liability News at a press conference hosted by the NYU School of Law’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, which wants to highlight the work of the state attorneys general in defending environmental laws such as the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Act in response to the Trump administration’s attempts to cut environmental regulation.

“State attorneys general are upholding the rule of law and stopping unlawful actions dead in their tracks at the courthouse,” said David J. Hayes, the center’s executive director. “Attorneys general have also been active in shaping outcomes in advance by speaking out about the harms potential actions would have on their constituents.”

The Center also unveiled on its website a list of actions by state attorneys general of national or regional significance since January 2017. As of Tuesday, the page listed 81 actions by 26 states and the District of Columbia on topics ranging from energy efficiency to scientific integrity.