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Judge dismisses Exxon’s ‘nonsensical lawsuit’ against climate investigations

A federal judge ruled that Exxon's allegations against two attorneys general were "implausible."

Activists rally against ExxonMobil Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Activists rally against ExxonMobil Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by Exxon against two attorneys general currently investigating the company for its history of climate deception. The judge called the company’s attempts to get the lawsuits thrown out and allegations against the attorneys general “implausible.”

The order, written by Judge Valerie E. Caproni of United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, allows a multistate investigation into the company to move forward, and comes at a time when Exxon faces a growing number of lawsuits over its role in climate change.

“I am pleased with the court’s decision to dismiss Exxon’s frivolous, nonsensical lawsuit that wrongfully attempted to thwart a serious state law enforcement investigation into the company,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), who was one of the two attorneys general named in the lawsuit, said in a statement.

“As the Court noted,” Schneiderman said, “Exxon’s claims in this lawsuit were ‘implausible’ and unsupported, while its strategy amounted to a type of ‘legal jiu-jitsu’ that resulted in nothing more than a ‘huge waste’ of time and money.”

Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) are both looking into whether Exxon mislead shareholders about the risks that climate change posed to the company’s business.

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The investigations began in 2015, after a series of investigative reports published by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed that the company’s internal scientists were aware of the risks of burning fossil fuels as early as the 1970s. Despite that information, however, Exxon continued to fund a public campaign aimed at undermining the scientific consensus around climate change, and maintained an official position of climate denial for years.

In June of 2016, Exxon attempted to block the investigations by filing a lawsuit in a federal court in Texas. The lawsuit, which alleges that the state attorneys general conspired with activists to violate the company’s First and Fourth amendment rights, initially appeared to have found a sympathetic ear in U.S. District Court Judge Ed Kinkeade.

Kinkeade had expressed his skepticism with the attorneys general’s motives for investigating Exxon and ordered in-person depositions from Schneiderman and Healey. Still, in March of 2017, Kinkeade ordered the lawsuit be transferred to a court in New York, explaining that Texas was not the correct venue for the lawsuit to be decided in.

That decision volleyed the lawsuit to a district court in New York, where Judge Caproni, an Obama appointee, eventually rendered her decision.

In her decision, Caproni characterized Exxon’s strategy as “running roughshod over the adage that a best defense is a good offense,” and wrote that the company’s lawsuit was based on “extremely thin allegations and speculative inferences.”

Environmental groups cheered Caproni’s decision, calling it a confirmation that Exxon’s lawsuit was designed to derail an otherwise legal investigation.

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“The district court cut right through the fog of ExxonMobil’s misguided effort to block lawful and proper investigations by state attorneys general,” Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement. “With ExxonMobil’s suit dismissed, one can hope that the truth will finally come out.”

In addition to the two investigations by Healey and Schneiderman, Exxon is currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over allegations that the company is not accurately accounting for the long-term risks of climate change. Exxon has also been named as a defendant in all nine climate liability lawsuits filed by cities and counties in California and New York, which ask fossil fuel companies to pay for the adaptation costs associated with climate-related consequences such as sea level rise.

Exxon has tried a similar tactic in response to the city and county lawsuits, filing a motion in a district court in Texas in January alleging that the cities and counties are part of a “conspiracy” to “coerce ExxonMobil … to adopt policies aligned with those favored by local politicians in California.”

Legal experts have argued that the motion is likely intended to dissuade other cities from pursuing similar actions against Exxon.

“There is a real risk that these things are intended to and will succeed in chilling speech and intimidating local government officials from taking progressive action,” Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told ThinkProgress in February.

That tactic, however, doesn’t appear to be working, as politicians in both Los Angeles and Miami have called for their cities to consider filing similar lawsuits against fossil fuel companies.