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A coalition of state attorneys general is investigating whether Exxon intentionally deceived its shareholders and the public about the threat of climate change. (Photo: AP)

Exxon Has No Free Speech Rights to Commit Fraud, say Climate Groups

Exxon's "preemptive strike to shut down the investigation before it is completed should not be countenanced," says Union of Concerned Scientists

Nadia Prupis

ExxonMobil is attempting to evade a growing investigation into its campaign to suppress science about climate change, asking a federal court this week to throw out a subpoena that would force the oil giant to hand over decades of documents to a coalition of state attorneys general.

In its filing with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth, Exxon argued that the subpoena from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey violated Constitutional amendments on free speech, equal protection, and unreasonable search and seizure.

Healey is part of the coalition investigating whether Exxon intentionally deceived its shareholders and the public about the threat of global warming after its decades-long campaign to suppress climate science was revealed in 2015 by the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News. Healey's subpoena also seeks communications between the oil company and free-market business groups that expressed doubt about the efficacy of contradicting evidence of global warming, Reuters reports.

Healey's office said it was reviewing the motion, but climate advocates said the filing should not be taken seriously.

"No company has a First Amendment right to knowingly provide misinformation about the harm associated with its product," Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Thursday. "State attorneys general, including in Massachusetts, have every right to investigate whether the company's actions amounted to an actionable fraud."

Exxon's "preemptive strike to shut down the investigation before it is completed should not be countenanced," Kimmell said.

The oil company argued in its filing on Wednesday that the subpoena is asking for documents that are outside the statute of limitations and that "the great irony" in the case is that it has "acknowledged the risks of climate change for more than a decade."

Despite that claim, Exxon executives spent last month's shareholder meeting pushing back against proposals that demanded to know how the company would respond to the historic Paris agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

"CEO Rex Tillerson misleadingly spoke about uncertainties in climate science, while ExxonMobil continues to fund industry front groups that also sow doubt about the climate risks of burning oil, coal and gas," Kimmell said. "There is more than sufficient evidence to warrant the investigation by Attorney General Healey into whether state laws have been violated."

Healey was the latest to join the game-changing coalition of 17 state attorneys general, including those from California, New York, and the Virgin Islands, to look into the scandal. Exxon is also fighting a racketeering investigation launched by Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker.

The oil company is backed by a smaller group of conservative attorneys general, including those from Texas and Alabama, who announced in May that they would be taking Exxon's side in the fight.

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