Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, center, joined a coalition of her colleagues seeking climate action and considering investigations of Exxon.
Exxon, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and their allies are invoking free speech protections in a pugnacious pushback against subpoenas from attorneys general seeking decades of documents on climate change. Their argument is that the state-level investigations violate the First Amendment rights of those who question climate science.
Neela Banerjee reports for the Pulitzer-Prize-winning blog insight Climate News:
Exxon has sued to block a subpoena issued by the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in an unusual step, named as a defendant the Washington, D.C. law firm and attorney representing the territory in the inquiry. In its complaint against the Virgin Islands subpoena, Exxon wrote, "The chilling effect of this inquiry...strikes at protected speech at the core of the First Amendment."
In a pointed letter to Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker on April 20, CEI's attorney called the subpoena "offensive" and "un-American," and warned to "expect a fight." Andrew Grossman, outside counsel for CEI, wrote, "You have no right to wield your power as a prosecutor to advance a policy agenda by persecuting those who disagree with you."
The conservative non-profit Energy & Environment Legal Institute, an ally of CEI, recently released emails that show that the attorneys general considering investigating Exxon were briefed by two environmentalists. E&E got the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Vermont attorney general's office. Though such meetings with environmental and industry advocates are widely considered routine, E&E described the meetings as secretive collusion, an idea that has been echoed on conservative websites and among some mainstream media outlets.
The AGs have not changed course amid the counterattack. But Exxon and its allies appear to be aiming as much at public opinion as at state law enforcement. After Inside Climate News and later the Los Angeles Times published stories last year detailing Exxon's cutting edge climate research in the 1970s and its subsequent efforts to disparage climate science, the company initially argued it has conducted climate science without interruption for 40 years. It also answered a subpoena by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and produced 10,000 pages of records by the end of 2015.
Now, its emphasis appears to have shifted. As the company tries to defend its climate contrarian stance, Exxon argues that it has voiced honest dissent on the science that a conspiracy of environmentalists and attorneys general wants to silence. "Our critics, on the other hand, want no part of that discussion. Rather, they seek to stifle free speech and limit scientific inquiry while painting a false picture of ExxonMobil," spokeswoman Suzanne McCarron wrote in a post on the company's blog on April 20 titled "The Coordinated Attack on ExxonMobil."
Exxon and CEI's lawyers have experience waging long battles with government attorneys on controversial cases. Exxon's law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and CEI's attorneys, Baker Hostetler, represented the tobacco industry for years. Exxon's firm also represents the National Football League as it deals with the scandal over its concussion research.
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