ExxonMobil
A picture shows the logo of US oil and gas giant ExxonMobil during the World Gas Conference exhibition in Paris on June 2, 2015.ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images

ExxonMobil is under investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over whether the largest publicly traded oil company in the world misled the public and investors through its comments on climate change. A company spokesman confirmed that it had received a subpoena from the attorney general's office and said it was "assessing" its response.

According to The Washington Post, the investigation will focus on whether the company withheld information it knew about climate change from both its investors and its consumers. A source close to the matter told The Post that the inquiry is pursuant to New York's Martin Act, a securities law to protect investors, and consumer protection laws.

Bloomberg reported that the subpoena seeks communications with trade associations and industry groups and other documents and disclosures dating from the 1970s to the present day. Schneiderman's spokesman Damien LaVera declined to comment if the subpoena had been issued.

ExxonMobil spokesman Scott Silvestri argued that the company often communicated about climate change risks in its reports to shareholders and other documents. "We unequivocally reject allegations that ExxonMobil suppressed climate change research contained in media reports that are inaccurate distortions of ExxonMobil's nearly 40-year history of climate research that was conducted publicly in conjunction with the Department of Energy, academics and the UN Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change," he said.

However, the company has been targeted for years by environmental advocates, who claim the company has helped promote public doubt regarding climate change. A group of environmental groups requested the US Department of Justice launch an investigation against the company following reports by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times. Reuters reported the two publications said ExxonMobil scientist raised concerns about global warming decades ago but were met with doubts by the company's executives.

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, told The Post the new investigation is similar to that of the tobacco industry in the past. "We are not physiologically addicted to oil, but we live inside a highly developed infrastructure that fosters fossil fuel dependency and discourages alternatives.

"We could have begun to shift the incentives, and encourage alternatives, if we had implemented a carbon tax or ETS at any point over the past 20 years," Oreskes said. "There are many reasons we did not do that, but a significant one, in my view, is the role of Exxon Mobil and others in fomenting disinformation, undermining public support for such initiatives, and lobbying against policies that would have begun to decrease our fossil fuel dependency." It should be noted, though, that the company's current CEO, Rex Tillerson, has called for a carbon tax.