Actions launched by extreme anti-oil and gas activists claiming Exxon Mobil engaged in an alleged cover-up of climate change risks have taken another interesting turn. This week House Republicans initiated a probe into New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigative efforts as well as those of his colleagues. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology plans to investigate Attorney General Schneiderman and several other attorneys general alleged by House Republicans to be working at the behest of environmental activists to silence critics of global warming possibly resulting in an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.
Recent efforts by environmentalists and governmental authorities include: a notice from the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts of its intent to sue Exxon for allegedly engaging in a deliberate, decades-long cover-up of climate change—it will be the first lawsuit by an environmental group against a petroleum company for climate change matters; a subpoena issued by the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Attorney General’s office related to allegations of violating two state laws by obtaining money under false pretenses and conspiring to do so; and New York Attorney General Schneiderman’s investigation where documents have been subpoenaed to determine whether the company misled investors about the dangers climate change posed to its operations.
Both industry and environmentalists see these efforts as a pivotal moment in a growing campaign to deploy a legal strategy much like the one used against tobacco companies in the 1990s by arguing that oil companies have long hidden what they know about climate change. This aggressive strategy previously targeted against tobacco companies adversely impacted the companies’ finances, credibility and corporate reputation as a result of lawsuits accusing them of hiding the facts about health concerns associated with their products.
The Wall Street Journal previously reported that an agenda for a meeting of environmentalists confirmed the campaign’s goals included “to establish in public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm.” The new legal strategy playing out stems in large part from environmentalists’ frustration over the lack of progress and inadequacy of recent climate deals. In short, they want to encourage state attorneys general and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and file lawsuits that will change Exxon’s behavior, force it to pay big damages and drive public attention to climate change.
As a result, Exxon has been forced to respond to and manage inaccurate reporting on over 40 years of publicly conducted climate research. Attorneys General for Texas and Alabama announced this week their support for Exxon attempting to block a probe by the Virgin Islands into the company’s climate change research. They contend the probe is an improper curb on Exxon’s First Amendment rights. The biggest challenge faced by the environmentalists will be to establish clear culpability for global warming on the part of Exxon or other petroleum companies.
In responding to the Virgin Islands’ subpoena, Exxon noted that it is an unwarranted fishing expedition into the company’s internal records that violates its constitutional rights. In the filing, Exxon further noted “the chilling effect of this inquiry, which discriminates based on viewpoint to target one side of an ongoing policy debate, strikes at protected speech at the core of the First Amendment.”
Climate change is a complex environmental concern with international, national, state and local implications. No single industry, company, entity or governmental authority bears the sole responsibility for challenges that have been years in the making. It is unfortunate that one industry, and primarily one company, is being called upon to defend the regulatory, policy and political failings of so many.