Citing Exxon Mobil’s right to “free speech,” 11 state attorneys general — all Republicans — filed in court this week to stop an investigation into the oil and gas giant’s decades-long history of climate denial.
The attorneys general — from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin — filed a brief to support Exxon’s request to stop the so-called “Exxon Knew” investigation, arguing that there is a “public policy debate” over climate change and that the investigation is an “unconstitutional abuse” of power.
“The Constitution was written to protect citizens from government witch-hunts such as this one, where officials use their authority and the threat of criminal prosecution to try and suppress speech on a viewpoint they disagree with,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement.
This isn’t the first time Texas has intervened in the investigation on behalf of the state’s largest company. Paxton and his counterpart from Arkansas filed on behalf of Exxon in May of last year when it challenged a Virgin Islands subpoena. Paxton has said the investigations are “ridiculous.”
The investigation, now spearheaded by Democratic state attorneys general Eric Schneiderman of New York and Maura Healey of Massachusetts, was prompted after the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News independently discovered that, as far back as the 1970s, Exxon scientists were aware of the role burning fossil fuels plays in climate change. Exxon subsequently funded organizations that publicly deny the science behind human-caused climate change.
As a publicly traded company, Exxon has a legal requirement to disclose risk; therefore, prosecutors are investigating whether the corporation knowingly misled investors over the long-term risk of climate change. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission was also reportedly investigating as of last year.
Exxon filed its lawsuit challenging the investigation in Texas last year, but recently the judge in the case opted to move the suit to the U.S. District Court in Manhattan. After challenging the New York and Massachusetts subpoena, Exxon was ordered to hand over emails and documents related to climate change communications.
Schneiderman’s office reached a settlement in 2015 with Peabody Coal, after a multi-year investigation found that the company had violated state law by misleading shareholders about the risk to the company of climate change and efforts to stop climate change.
A spokesperson for the New York Attorney General’s Offices said Exxon’s lawsuit would not deter the current investigation.
“We will continue to pursue our fraud investigation under New York law, despite attempts by Exxon and Big Oil’s beneficiaries to delay and distract from the serious issues at hand,” Amy Spitalnick told ThinkProgress in an email.
Environmental groups were not quite as diplomatic. Responding to a line in the brief suggesting that “climate change is the subject of legitimate international debate,” Climate Hawks Vote, a California group that has pressed the California attorney general to also pursue an investigation into Exxon, issued the following statement:
“What f*cking debate?!?”