I was noodling over some legal background relative to Exxon today when the NY State Attorney General trumped me, announcing an investigation into whether Exxon lied to the public or its investors about the relationship between the oil business and climate.
The legal issues around investors could be interesting, with former CEO Lee Raymond pretty much stating that long-term investors should not view climate change as a scientifically-established problem for those in the carbon business. Even more interesting I think is what the AG's subpoenas end up discovering.
So while that's happening, I was looking at estoppel. Basically it's a legal tool that prevents someone who did or said bad things from relying on technicalities to escape responsibility, and instead holds them to what they said. Where it could be relevant to Exxon is if the company were to argue that statements by Lee Raymond and the denialists Exxon funded are irrelevant because everyone has access to the science of the time. A court might say that Exxon by its behavior in supporting denialism is estopped from now saying its previous denialism doesn't count.
Here are some estoppel descriptions:
"The plaintiffs pled that defendants were estopped to take advantage of the statute. The doctrine of equitable estoppel is based upon the principle that a person is held to a representation made or a position assumed when otherwise inequitable consequences would result to another who, having the right to do so under all the circumstances, has in good faith relied thereon. (Maurer v. J.C. Nichols Co., 207 Kan. 315, 485 P.2d 174 .) "This court has further said:
"'The doctrine of equitable estoppel requires consistency of conduct, and a litigant is estopped and precluded from maintaining an attitude with reference to a transaction involved wholly inconsistent with his previous acts and business connection with such transaction.' (Browning v. Lefevre, 191 Kan. 397, Syl. ¶ 2, 381 P.2d 524 .)
"'. . . One who asserts an estoppel must show some change in position in reliance on the adversary's misleading statement. . . .' (In re Morgan, 219 Kan. 136, 137, 546 P.2d 1394 .)
"'. . . Equitable estoppel is the effect of the voluntary conduct of a person whereby he is precluded, both at law and in equity, from asserting rights against another person relying on such conduct. A party asserting equitable estoppel must show that another party, by its acts, representations, admissions, or silence when it had a duty to speak, induced it to believe certain facts existed. It must also show it rightfully relied and acted upon such belief and would now be prejudiced if the other party were permitted to deny the existence of such facts. . . .' (United American State Bank & Trust Co. v. Wild West Chrysler Plymouth, Inc., 221 Kan. 523, 527, 561 P.2d 792 .)"
So if people could have in good faith relied upon statements by Raymond and the denialist organizations, then Exxon is going to have trouble saying the courts should ignore what Exxon said. Seeing as Raymond was speaking officially on behalf of Exxon, said in all seriousness about a core business interest in which Exxon asserted it had expertise, then it seems like a good faith argument could apply here.
UPDATE: I'll add something I put in the comments -
The legal issue is that having done some of the science themselves with results that fit squarely in the mainstream consensus, Exxon was lying when it said via its CEO and via denialists it funded that the science is uncertain/the science is wrong, respectively. Supposedly this is a distinction between Exxon and other fossil fuel companies that plausibly believed their own nonsense. I'm not so sure, however.
What truly distinguishes Exxon is that it produced science on the issue, unlike the other companies, but what's legally relevant is that it understood the overall science. We know that it understood because of the science it produced and because of internal documents being released. The other fossil fuel companies may also have understood the science - we just don't know that yet. If they did their own internal reviews, and reached the same conclusion Exxon did, they stand in the same fragile legal position.