A House committee is seeking to assert its jurisdiction over inquiries by several state attorneys general (AG) into ExxonMobil Corp.'s climate change research and is demanding to know more about consultations with environmental groups.
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent a letter last week to 17 state/territory AGs asserting the rights and duty of Congress to oversee state investigations. About 20 states, led by New York, are questioning whether the supermajor misled the public over decades about the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.
New York AG Eric T. Schneiderman's office last fall subpoenaed ExxonMobil, demanding financial records, emails and other documents that date back to the 1970s (see Daily GPI, Nov. 6, 2015; Oct. 23, 2015). Several other AGs have followed.
The civil rights of scientists, Smith said, are imperiled by the investigations. "Not only does the possibility exist that such action could have a chilling effect on scientists performing federally funded research, but it could also infringe on the civil rights of scientists who become targets of these inquiries," he wrote. "Your actions violate the scientists' First Amendment rights. Congress has a duty to investigate your efforts to criminalize scientific dissent."
Smith and committee members previously had asked Schneiderman and his colleagues to turn over information from their investigations, but they claimed the request exceeds Congressional power. The investigation is about potential fraud, not protected speech, the AGs said.
"Our investigation seeks to ensure that investors and consumers were and are provided with complete and accurate information that is indispensable to the just and effective functioning of our free market," Schneiderman's office wrote to Smith in May.
ExxonMobil for months has sought to quash attempts to require it to release its climate change research, which has been conducted for more than 30 years. In April it asked a Texas federal court to dismiss a subpoena by U.S. Virgin Islands AG Claude Earl Walker (see Daily GPI, April 15). Last week it asked for a subpoena to be dismissed by Massachusetts AG Maura Healey, calling it a "fishing expedition."
The Irving, TX-based supermajor also is seeking an injunction barring enforcement of a civil investigative demand (CID) by Healey, who the company said is "abusing the power of government" and has already have made up her mind as to what an investigation may find.
ExxonMobil in a separate petition filed last week in Massachusetts also has asked that Healey's office be recused from pursuing an investigation because it was "impermissibly biased." The 25-page petition filed in Massachusetts Superior Court requests the court set aside or modify the CID, which is seeking "virtually every document" generated by ExxonMobil regarding climate change over several decades.
Healey's office, similar to Schneiderman's investigation, is questioning whether ExxonMobil's statements about climate change have violated Massachusetts laws, which prohibit "unfair or deceptive acts or practices" in trade or commerce. ExxonMobil's marketing and/or sale of energy and other fossil fuel-derived products to Massachusetts consumers and marketing/sale of securities to state investors also is under scrutiny.
The investigation, ExxonMobil said, violates its "constitutional rights to speak freely and be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures..."
"People should be troubled by any attempt by members of Congress to silence or undercut basic investigatory authority by a state attorney general's office," said Healey spokeswoman Cyndi Roy Gonzalez. "Our office will not be intimidated by oil industry-backed members of the U.S. House of Representatives."
Many state AGs are on ExxonMobil's side. Earlier this month 13 AGs said in a letter the inquiry was a "grave mistake" and argued that climate change is a public policy debate not a legal policy debate. The letter was signed by AGs in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
"We think this efforts by our colleagues to police the global warming debate through the power of the subpoena is a grave mistake," the letter said. "It has been asserted that 'fossil fuel companies' may have funded nonprofits [that] minimized the risks of climate change...Does anyone doubt that 'clean energy' companies have funded nonprofits [that] exaggerated the risks of climate change? Under the stated theory for fraud, consumers and investors could suffer harm from misstatements by all energy-market participants and the nonprofits they support."
ExxonMobil spokesman Alan T. Jeffers said "the great irony here is that we've acknowledged the risks of climate change for more than a decade, have supported a carbon tax as the better policy option and spent more than $7 billion on research and technologies to reduce emissions."