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Congress Wades Deeper Into The Battle Over Whether Exxon Knew

California Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris takes questions from the media after being briefed on the Santa Barbara oil spill at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., on Thursday, June 4, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAMIAN DOVARGANES
California Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris takes questions from the media after being briefed on the Santa Barbara oil spill at Refugio State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif., on Thursday, June 4, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAMIAN DOVARGANES

Congress is joining the battle over state investigations into whether ExxonMobil lied to the public about climate change. Several Democratic congressional representatives wrote a letter to California Attorney General Kamala Harris last week, defending her ongoing Exxon probe of how much the company knew about climate change. This letter is a response to an attempt by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) to “harass and suppress” her and several other attorneys generals’ work on holding “companies accountable for swindling the American people as to the truth of climate science.”

This continues a string of letters back and forth between Republican and Democratic members of congress and attorneys general over the last several weeks. The battle has been waged since several news outlets found that Exxon may have known about about the risks posed by climate change and used climate research as part of business planning — while publicly arguing the opposite, and funding others who did the same.

Nineteen representatives wrote the letter supporting the investigation into whether Exxon “lied about the truth of climate change and misled investors.” It was also a response to Smith and other congressmen who accused Harris and the investigation as an attack on First Amendment rights of companies, nonprofit organizations, and scientists. The Democrats go on to explain Smith’s misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which “protects freedom of speech,” but “does not protect companies from defrauding the American people or improperly disclosing information to their shareholders.”

They denounced the actions of Smith “as a flagrant abuse of power.” Comparing the investigations and arguments of oil companies to tobacco companies in the 1990s, they wrote “Big Tobacco also attempted to invoke the First Amendment in order to protect them from their actions to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking.”

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New York Attorney General To House Republicans: Are You Kidding?Climate by CREDIT: P Photo/Bebeto Matthews Not content to let the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology’s…thinkprogress.orgTheir letter comes after Smith subpoenaed the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for documents dating back four years to a 2012 workshop to address climate change. He and several other congressmen also sent letters denouncing the investigation to several other attorneys general involved in the Exxon investigation, including Harris.

New York’s delegation also responded to Smith’s letter to Schneiderman a day after California delegates expressed their support for Harris. In a letter provided to press, New York representatives wrote “governments and private sector actors around the world are taking steps to shift away from global dependence on fossil fuels and move toward clean energy sources.” Because of this, they continued, there are “financial risks” for investors in companies like Exxon, which are “risks that the investing public is entitled to know.”

Schneiderman’s office responded directly to Smith, the chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, writing that the First Amendment does not protect against fraud. His office cites several Supreme Court cases to back that stance, including United States v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., where the tobacco company was found to have covered up the health effects of cigarette smoking.

State AGs Vow To Tackle Climate Change And Fossil Fuel Industry FraudClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer A group of state attorneys general just declared war on big polluters. The…thinkprogress.orgSeventeen attorneys general from 15 states and two territories are part of the ongoing Exxon investigation, but not all attorneys general support the Exxon investigation.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the investigation was “ridiculous,” speaking on the Exxon investigation being conducted in the Virgin Islands. Paxton called the investigation “an effort to punish Exxon for daring to hold an opinion on climate change that differs from that of radical environmentalists.”

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Another letter from four senators to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch urged her to continue the Department of Justice’s investigation into whether “what the fossil fuel industry is up to is ‘core political speech’ or whether it is downright fraud.”

As far back as 1977, a company scientist James F. Black announced his findings that carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels would have grave effects on the planet, reported InsideClimate News, which obtained internal documents from the company. Not too long after, Harris began the investigation into Exxon. Having known about climate change, potentially misleading investors, and later contributing to the rhetoric of climate change skeptics, could have serious consequences for the company depending what the investigation finds.