Transparency is at the core of an escalating confrontation between House Republicans and some state Attorney Generals over Exxon's support for climate change denial. The AGs in July defied a subpoena from the House Science Committee.
Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, signaled July 27, 2016, that he was not ready to back down from the confrontation, saying "the Committee will consider using all tools at its disposal to further its investigation."
It is an investigation of an investigation. The storm blew up back in fall 2015 when journalism outlets like InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times documented that Exxon and its predecessors had known for decades of the scientific likelihood that human fossil-fuel emissions would cause global warming — yet funded an elaborate and concealed campaign of denial.
Exxon pushed back — with help from many Republicans, including Science Committee Chairman Smith — both a recipient of fossil-fuel donations and a dogged climate-change skeptic himself.
This March a group of state attorneys-general, most prominently New York's Eric T. Schneiderman and Massachusetts' Maura Healey, launched an investigation following up on the journalistic exposé, probing, among other things, whether the company had properly disclosed to shareholders all the risks they faced. Collaborators in the project included more than a dozen other attorneys-general and a collection of environmental groups.
The AGs, of course, subpoenaed documents from Exxon that might illuminate the allegations. In resisting the subpoenas and the investigations, Exxon cited its First Amendment right to free speech. A Schneiderman spokesperson countered: "The First Amendment does not give any corporation the right to commit fraud."
Then in May 2016 the Science Committee's Smith entered the fray, launching his own investigation of the AGs' investigation. Smith and committee Republicans accused the AGs and environmental groups of a coordinated effort to deprive companies of their First Amendment rights and their ability to conduct scientific research.
Smith demanded documents, and when the AGs and groups refused to provide them, finally issued subpoenas for them on July 13, 2016. The AGs and environmental groups promptly declared that they would not comply.
A key question: what happens now? In practical terms, Smith's ability to actually enforce the subpoena is limited — not only by Congress' own legal handicaps but also by the fact that he would have to rely on President Obama's Justice Department to take legal action.
- "State AGs and Groups Defy Lamar Smith's Subpoena Over Exxon Climate Probes," InsideClimate News, July 27, 2016, by David Hasemyer.
- "Escalating Battle Over Exxon Investigation Subpoenas Could End Up in Court," InsideClimate News, July 20, 2016, by David Hasemyer.
- "Exxon Mobil Fights Back at State Inquiries into Climate Change Research," New York Times, June 16, 2016, by John Schwartz.
- "State Officials Investigated Over Their Inquiry into Exxon Mobil’s Climate Change Research," New York Times, May 19, 2016, by John Schwartz.
- "Pressure on Exxon Over Climate Change Intensifies with New Documents," New York Times, April 14, 2016, by John Schwartz.
- "Exxon Mobil Climate Change Inquiry in New York Gains Allies," New York Times, March 29, 2016, by John Schwartz.
- "Smith Statement on MA, NY Attorneys’ General, Environmental Groups’ Refusal to Comply with Subpoena," House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, July 27, 2016.
- "Smith Subpoenas MA, NY Attorneys General, Environmental Groups," House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, July 13, 2016.
- "Smith Letter to Environmental Groups Reiterating Requests, Threatening Use of Compulsory Process," House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, July 6, 2016.
- "Smith Letter to NY, MA Attorneys General Reiterating Requests, Threatening Use of Compulsory Process," House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, July 6, 2016.
- "Committee Scrutinizes Motive of 'Green 20'," release of May 18, 2016, House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology.
- Op-Ed: "When Subpoenas Threaten Climate Science," New York Times, July 19, 2016, by Ken Kimmell.