Environmental groups on Thursday welcomed news that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had referred the federal investigation into ExxonMobil's decades-long suppression of climate science to the FBI's criminal division.

The FBI probe is only the latest measure taken against the Exxon, with individual investigations into the cover-up also underway in California and New York. Photo credit: Shutterstock

"Exxon has already cost us decades of meaningful climate action and policy thanks to its colossal climate denial operation. This development is a step in the right direction to holding it legally accountable," said Naomi Ages, a climate liability campaigner with Greenpeace. "We expect the FBI and the Department of Justice to give this investigation the attention demanded by the American public."

The DOJ's referral, reported late Wednesday night by Inside Climate News, comes as a response to growing evidence that ExxonMobil covered up the role of fossil fuels in climate change and interfered in government efforts to take action on global warming, fearing that it would limit the company's profits. The extent of the campaign was revealed late last year through two separate investigations by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times.

In response to the reporting, U.S. Representatives from California Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier requested the DOJ investigation to determine whether the company had violated federal laws by "failing to disclose truthful information" about climate change.

"There is going to be a moment of judgment both politically and legally," DeSaulnier told Inside Climate News on Wednesday. "I think a moment of judgment will be quite critical of the fossil fuel industry in terms of obfuscating the scientific facts and for not adhering to their moral and legal responsibility to the public."

Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said on Thursday, "The formal referral by the Department of Justice means that the FBI must now take real steps to evaluate the serious allegations against ExxonMobil ... The referral demonstrates for both the public and investors that the legal risks facing Exxon and other fossil fuel producers are real, they are significant and they are now imminent."

"The bad news for Exxon is that the disclosures to date are only the tip of what is almost certainly a very large iceberg of documentary evidence," Muffett said.

Others agreed.

"This is turning into a nightmare for Exxon. No company wants to hear their name and 'criminal' in the same sentence. This FBI investigation must quickly lead back to a full Department of Justice inquiry and, ultimately, legal action," said Jamie Henn, communications director for 350.org. "Exxon knew about climate change, they misled the public and it’s time for them to be held to criminal account."

The FBI probe is only the latest measure taken against the company, with individual investigations into the cover-up also underway in California and New York. Ben Schreiber, climate and energy program director at Friends of the Earth U.S., noted that the action follows growing scientific evidence that the vast majority of fossil fuels must remain untouched in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.

"With the latest science telling us that the world needs to keep more than 80 percent of its fossil fuels in the ground it is clear that this business model must end," Schreiber said. "What’s also becoming clear is that ExxonMobil has known this for decades and they lied to the American people about climate change in order to protect their ill-gotten gains. We welcome the FBI’s criminal investigation into ExxonMobil’s misconduct."

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