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Exxon Calls Climate-Related Subpoenas an Assault on its Legal Rights

ExxonMobil Corp. will fight against a subpoena to try and see exactly what it has known about the effects of climate change, saying that the legal maneuver is an all-out assault on its constitutional rights. That’s what the Wall Street Journal is reporting, noting that Exxon is calling the efforts “chilling.”

The specific challenge that Exxon is now up against is that of US Virgin Islands, which is part of a broader group that wants to make Exxon pay for its inaction on climate change. News reports have said that Exxon’s internal research had indicated climate change to be environmentally damaging. Yet, the company chose to either ignore or to hide those findings.

“The chilling effect of this inquiry, which discriminates based on viewpoint to target one side of an ongoing policy debate, strikes at protected speech at the core of the First Amendment,” Exxon’s filing says, as noted by the Wall Street Journal. The filing continues by accusing the attorney general of the Virgin Islands of having an “ulterior motive” and of having no “reasonable suspicion.”

New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman started things off with his initial subpoena into Exxon’s earliest known activities and the impact that they might have on the oil developer’s shareholders. At least 17 jurisdictions in all are part of this inquiry. At the heart of the legal matter is that corporate managers are duty bound to tell their owners — their shareholders — everything that they know.

The legal and economic arguments for going after Exxon is fairly straight forward: If oil companies have known for decades that burning oil could result in irreparable ecological damages, they had the obligation to tell their owners this so that the shareholders could decide whether to sell their shares.

The political discussion is really something quite different. That is, environmental activists are taking every avenue they can to limit the burning of fossil fuels and to combat rising temperatures. The Wall Street Journal says that the tactic is similar to how activists went after the tobacco industry, ultimately holding it accountable for huge damages for not telling smokers that it had long-known smoking caused cancer and was harmful to one’s health.

“Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change must be held accountable,” said Maura Healey, Massachusetts’ attorney general, at a press conference

To compound Exxon’s problems, the Center for International Environmental Law uncovered evidence nearly a half century ago that oil executives knew of the coming climate phenomenon: In 1968, the Stanford Research Institute issued a paper to the American Petroleum Institute saying that environmental changes could jeopardize the earth’s future.

“These documents are the tip of an evidentiary iceberg that demands further investigation,” says Carroll Muffett, head of the environmental center. “Oil companies had an early opportunity to acknowledge climate science and climate risks, and to enable consumers to make informed choices. They chose a different path. The public deserves to know why.”

As for Exxon, it has friends in some unexpected circles: environmental think tanks. Michael Shellenberger, former head of the Breakthrough Institute, has said that painting the oil giant as a “climate change denier” is misleading: “In reality, Exxon funded conservative think tanks that were mostly *not* “climate deniers” — & in many cases advocate climate policy!’” he tweeted.

“The allegations are based on the false premise that Exxon Mobil reached definitive conclusions about anthropogenic climate change before the world’s experts and before the science itself had matured, and then withheld it from the broader scientific community. Such a claim is preposterous,” adds Suzanne McCarron, an Exxon spokeswoman, in a press release.

She says that the company’s research decades ago “yielded no definitive conclusions” and that today “Exxon Mobil recognizes the risks posed by climate change, and we believe that everyone should be engaged in meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Ken Silverstein is editor-in-chief of Business Sector Media, publisher of Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today.

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7 thoughts on “Exxon Calls Climate-Related Subpoenas an Assault on its Legal Rights

  1. Give us a break. The Breakthrough Institute is hardly a typical environmentalist organization. You need to do your homework. I quote from their manifesto: we reject (the enviromentalist ideal) that human societies must
    harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.

  2. The comparison to tobacco is preposterous and simply a red herring. The “true believers” throw brickbats when it is pointed out that the sun has the most significant effect on climate and by the way, there has been no correlation with temperature and co2 emissions. Why not engage in a real debate with the thousands of scientists that don’t think the sky is falling instead of calling them names?

  3. Adrian: No significant participant in the scientific debate has ever ‘thrown a brickbat’ with regards to the solar contribution to climate. Indeed, every reputable scientist, and every useful climatic model; have always included solar effects. It is purely imaginary to claim otherwise.
    Furthermore, your claim that “there has been no correlation with temperature and co2 emissions” is also patently false. There are excellent correlations between various temperature measurements or temperature proxy measurements and CO2 emissions; both in the past and in the current era. Indeed, the literature in the field has numerous articles, analyses, studies, and summaries that refer to such correlations; and the data is available to anyone who actually searches for it (which you clearly have never bothered to do).
    Finally, the comparisons to the cover-ups that occurred with respect to tobacco use correlations with cancer or other health ailments; are far from being preposterous. Big tobacco companies literally lied for years about the health effects of tobacco as well as about the addictive quality of nicotine. Now, big fossil fuel companies have apparently been lying about the climactic consequences of fossil fuel use. The comparison is both obvious and well-deserved.

  4. Oh, and by the way Adrian: about 97% to 98% of top scientists engaged in climate research are all in agreement that climate change is happening, that a major driver of such climate change is the sum total of human influences such as the burning of fossil fuels, and that such climate change represents a clear and immediate threat to human societies all across the globe. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus about the reality, the human causes, and the dangers of climate change.

  5. 97-98% of “top scientists” ? Why hasn’t the sum total raised the temperature beyond levels reached multiple times in the past.
    Flat earth was the overwhelming consensus for centuries.
    Scientific method does not recognize consensus of theories and models only proven facts. You can choose your experts but not your facts.

  6. Adrian: you claimed “thousands of scientists” who disagreed. So first off, I am providing direct evidence that your characterization is wrong – completely wrong. I repeat: the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that global climate change is real, caused in large part by human activities, and presents a significant risk. If you don’t believe me, try this link: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.full. Second, you originally tried to use your fantasy figure of “thousands of scientists” as a way to diss the climate change issue. Therefore you yourself are attempting to use sheer numbers as an argument; except that now you are trying to downplay that very same argument when I employ it – how convenient. Third, scientific consensus is the very mechanism by which science supports or disproves hypotheses; so your ridiculous statement that the scientific method “does not recognize consensus of theories and models only proven facts” is seen to merely be a resounding statement reflecting your own ignorance of the scientific method…

  7. And this is really off-topic, but since you mentioned it:
    flat earth was not “the overwhelming consensus for centuries.” For example, the ancient greeks not only knew that the earth is round; they also actually measured the diameter of the earth to a surprising accuracy. Later on, when Columbus proposed reaching the eastern spice islands be traveling west, everyone recognized that it was theoretically possible – their only complaint was that Columbus mis-estimated the size of the earth (turns out those ancient greeks were right after all)…

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