House GOPers in Standoff with State AGs Over Exxon Climate Probe Docs

August 3, 2016

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.

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