New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman led the Exxon climate investigationThe resignation of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opens the question about the future of the Exxon climate investigation. Photo credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

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By Jennifer Dorroh

New York’s probe of Exxon for potential climate fraud will continue despite the resignation of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Monday night, a spokesman for the AG’s office confirmed.

While not addressing the Exxon investigation specifically, New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood said in a statement that “our work continues without interruption.” Underwood will serve as the state’s acting AG until the state legislature convenes to choose who will serve out Schneiderman’s term.

Schneiderman resigned after a story in The New Yorker revealed that four women had accused him of assault.

“It’s been my great honor and privilege to serve as Attorney General for the people of the State of New York. In the last several hours, serious allegations, which I strongly contest, have been made against me. While these allegations are unrelated to my professional conduct or the operations of the office, they will effectively prevent me from leading the office’s work at this critical time. I therefore resign my office, effective at the close of business on May 8, 2018,” he said in a statement.

The movement to hold oil companies accountable for sea level rise and other impacts from climate change lost a powerfully placed advocate. Schneiderman launched his investigation in 2015 with a subpoena seeking 40 years of records of Exxon’s climate research. Since then, he has been tenacious in countering Exxon’s legal moves to thwart his investigation,  and continued his pursuit of what the oil giant knew about climate change while it simultaneously expressed doubt about climate change science to shareholders and the public.

After a U.S. District Court dismissed a suit Exxon pursued against him, Schneiderman said in a statement: “At every turn in our investigation, Exxon has tried to distract and deflect from the facts at hand. But we will not be deterred: our securities fraud investigation into Exxon continues.”

Exxon did not immediately respond to requests for comment after Schneiderman resigned.

His exit raised questions about whether New York would be deterred from pursuing that investigation. Schneiderman, a Democrat who had served as the state’s attorney general since 2010, was running for re-election. Under New York law, the state legislature will meet in joint session to choose a replacement to complete his current term.

“I don’t expect much to change with New York’s investigation,” said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University who studies state attorneys general and their role in national policymaking. “The New York attorney general’s office in particular is a large, well-oiled machine with many talented attorneys who can step in and continue these investigations.”  

“Longer term, we’ll have to see ultimately who takes over in the New York AG’s office. It will depends on who wins the election, but presumably it would be an ambitious Democrat.”

Schneiderman began the battle against the oil giant when he subpoenaed Exxon in December 2015.

In March 2016, Schneiderman led a group of 17 state attorneys general, calling themselves AGs United for Clean Power, at a press conference and pledged to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their conduct involving climate change. Former Vice President Al Gore called it “the best, most hopeful step in years,” and said, “What these attorneys general are doing is extremely important. These brave members of this coalition are doing their job like they did in the tobacco case.”

The attorneys general of Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands launched their own investigations in early 2016, but only Massachusetts, led by AG Maura Healey, remains in the fight along with New York.

Healey vowed on Tuesday to continue that fight. “The American people deserve answers from executives at Exxon about what they knew about the impact of burning fossil fuels on our climate, when they knew it, and what they told their investors and the world. Our state’s highest court has ordered the company to turn over documents. We look forward to continuing our critical investigation,” she said in a statement via email to Climate Liability News. Separately, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts attorney general’s office said Schneiderman’s resignation would in no way affect Massachusetts’ separate investigation of the oil company.