The committee drafting a platform for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party unanimously called on Friday for the Justice Department to investigate fossil fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil Corp., accused of misleading shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.
At the same time, in a session Friday night, the group brushed off calls by environmental activists for the platform to support several stronger actions to move away from fossil fuels. The policies, favored by Bernie Sanders, include a carbon tax and a ban on fracking.
The effect of the session, one of several forums around the country, was to intensify the partisan heat around criticism of Exxon's climate record, while allowing the Clinton camp to stake out political territory that is not quite so harsh on oil, coal and natural gas companies.
Exxon is already under scrutiny by several state attorneys general. President Obama's attorney general has referred the question to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for consideration.
Republicans, for their part, have come to Exxon's defense and denounced the probes as a politically inspired witch hunt that infringes on the company's constitutional rights.
Early in the campaign, after Sanders demanded a federal investigation, Clinton said that she, too, thought a Justice Department probe was warranted under RICO, a federal racketeering statute. But during the debates, as Sanders staked out forceful positions against fracking and for a carbon tax, Clinton refused to go that far.
And in the face of petitions by green activists trying to pull the platform more in the Sanders direction, Clinton's representatives on the platform panel backed her up. Clearly, they wanted to keep their fingers off such hot buttons, such as a promise to leave most fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
They also refused to embrace a "climate test" for approving future energy projects, similar to the one President Obama imposed in turning down TransCanada's application for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
Asked about the loss on so many points, the 350.org campaigner Bill McKibben said in an email, "Since I argued for them, I guess their failure is on me. Disappointing."
But the platform panel, according to RL Miller, founder of the advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote, did accept a goal of obtaining all U.S. energy from renewable fuels by 2050.
That ambition would support the new Paris climate agreement's goals and is hardly compatible with a business-as-usual or "all-of-the-above" energy policy. And it is a far cry from the pro-drilling, pro-fracking, pro-fossil fuels stance of the Republican Party and its candidate, Donald Trump.
"We're thrilled that the Democratic Party will formally recognize the need to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their deceit," Miller said. "And we're happy that the committee is calling for the United States to be 100% powered by clean energy by 2050. However, we don't see how we'll make that bold leap with baby steps."
She added that her group is "appalled by the incrementalist approach adopted by the majority of the committee in voting down amendments to ban fracking, price carbon, and keep fossil fuels in the ground. Incrementalism won't solve the climate crisis."
The platform's authors did not name Exxon, but the debate made clear that the company was the subject of their call for a federal investigation.
"All corporations owe it to their shareholders to fully analyze and disclose risks they face including climate risks," said the language they accepted. "Those who fail to do so should be held accountable. Democrats also respectfully request the Department of Justice investigate allegations of corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies accused of misleading shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change."
Speaking in support of the motion, Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, a longtime Clinton supporter, noted that Democratic state attorneys general "have been very strong in this" by pressing investigations of Exxon.
"We have a whole series of Republican attorneys general who are taking action right now to protect the oil companies from precisely this kind of litigation," she added. "It's really vital that we fight against those efforts at the state and local level."
Watch the platform's authors discuss the motion to investigate fossil fuel companies: