Not content to let the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology’s reputation for hating science rest for even a moment, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has now subpoenaed the New York attorney general over his investigation into Exxon’s role in sowing climate denial.
Calling the investigation a “coordinated attempt to deprive companies, nonprofit organizations, and scientists of their First Amendment rights and ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and the threat of prosecution,” Smith’s letter calls for documents and communication between the attorney general’s office and environmental groups, the EPA, and the Justice Department, and internally, regarding any climate change investigations. Smith sent similar letters to 16 other attorneys general and eight non-profit groups.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched his investigation into Exxon last year, after investigations by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate showed that the company’s scientists knew that global warming was happening allegedly as early as the 1970s.
Exxon has allegedly funded groups that have sowed climate denial, which could be the basis for a fraud case.
The attorney general’s office was clear that the investigation did not have anything to do with scientific inquiry.
“Attorney General Schneiderman has opened a significant investigation into whether Exxon committed securities fraud, business fraud, and consumer fraud in New York and all across America,” said Eric Soufer, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office. “It is remarkable that a do-nothing Congress that has refused to take any action on climate change is now attempting to disrupt this important investigation into potential corporate malfeasance.” Indeed, Smith’s letter comes across as shockingly hypocritical. At one point the congressman pointedly notes that the attorney general’s office is funded “with taxpayer dollars” — as is Smith’s own. He also calls the investigation “political theater” intended to “stifle scientific discourse.”
On a related note, Smith has subpoenaed scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for internal documents relating to a paper NOAA published on climate change. He has also accused the federally-funded research center of altering data. U.S. scientists have rallied against the inquisition, saying it will chill scientific inquiry.
“The irony of this letter is breathtaking, as its signatories appear to be part of a multi-pronged media campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry aimed at suppressing the free exchange of ideas among scientists, academics, and responsible law enforcement,” Soufer said.
On the same day Smith subpoenaed the New York Attorney General’s office, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) ran a full-page ad in the New York Times calling the investigation an “abuse of power.” CEI’s communication with Exxon over climate change denial has been subpoenaed by the Virgin Islands attorney general, who is also pursuing a case against the company.
For its part, the New York investigation into Exxon is not about whether the oil and gas giant’s science was correct or politically driven. The New York attorney general (as well as several other attorneys general across the country) are looking into whether Exxon knew that climate change was occurring, yet deliberately sowed doubt in the public for its own benefit.
That action could be considered fraud, particularly vis-a-vis the company’s stakeholders. In fact, a former Department of Justice attorney told ThinkProgress last year that she thinks the federal agency should investigate, as well.
“If Exxon knew its work made climate change worse and hid this information for profit, it should be held accountable, not protected by elected officials who are there to represent the American people, not corporations,” said Annie Leonard, director of Greenpeace, one of the organizations subpoenaed this week.
This wouldn’t be the first time a major industry had found to be sowing scientific doubt against their own research. Investigations into Big Tobacco in the 1990s ultimately led to criminal charges.The attorney general’s office did not seem pleased with House committee’s request.
“Anyone who thinks that Attorney General Schneiderman will be intimidated by this effort has no idea who they’re dealing with,” Soufer said. “New York will continue to work with and collaborate with its colleagues across the country, and those with expertise in this area, to protect its citizens from fraud.”
In Smith’s home state of Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton this week called Schneiderman’s investigation “ridiculous,” and filed a brief supporting Exxon’s motion to throw out New York’s subpoena.
This post has been updated with comments from Greenpeace and additional information about who was subpoenaed.