Government Law

Congress investigating state AGs for Exxon Mobil climate-change subpoenas

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State attorneys general investigating Exxon Mobil Corp.’s public statements on climate change are now being investigated themselves—for allegedly improper collaboration with environmentalists.

The New York Times reported Thursday that 13 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology have sent a letter (PDF) to 17 attorneys general announcing an investigation into whether the attorneys general—called the “Green 20” in the letter—are improperly using their offices for political purposes, raising free speech and abuse of discretion concerns.

The committee’s investigation is focused on a four-year time window, starting with a two-day workshop held in San Diego in 2012, where left-leaning environmental groups discussed strategies for shaping legal action and public opinion on the issue. The workshop’s materials included a reference to the power of “sympathetic state attorneys general” to subpoena energy companies’ internal documents. This, the committee’s letter said, constitutes a strategy “to persuade state attorneys general to use their prosecutorial powers to stifle scientific discourse [and] intimidate private entities and individuals.”

The letter requested all correspondence between the attorneys general’s offices and climate organizations.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is involved in the climate change investigation, but a spokesperson for his office, Eric Soufer, said it did not take part in the San Diego meeting. He said it’s routine for prosecutors to consult outside experts on an investigation.

Soufer also noted that Congress is investigating federal climate scientists and suggested that the members of Congress who signed the letter are part of a “multipronged media campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry.”

One AG has already felt Exxon Mobil’s displeasure. Last month, the energy company sued U.S. Virgin Islands AG Claude Walker and the private law firm he retained to help with his investigation. It argued that the offices’ subpoena of Exxon documents is an abuse of process and that the private firm, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, is not disinterested because it may be earning a contingency fee.

Walker has gone a step past the work in New York, the Times says, by subpoenaing private organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, seeking evidence that Exxon funded work at those groups that would cast doubt on climate change. The Republican attorneys general of Texas and Alabama have moved to block the Virgin Islands investigation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute has taken out an ad in the Times denouncing it.

Exxon did not comment to the Times, but said earlier this year that it’s “preposterous” to believe it was able to draw conclusions about climate change before scientists did.

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