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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