A coalition of Democratic attorneys general in 16 states announced Tuesday an unprecedented campaign to pursue companies that challenge the catastrophic climate change narrative, raising concerns over free speech and the use of state authority to punish political foes.
Standing beside former Vice President Al Gore, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the state officials are committed to “working together on key climate-related initiatives,” including queries into whether fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil have committed fraud by deceiving the public and shareholders about the impact of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
Two states — California and New York — already have launched probes into ExxonMobil, while attorneys general from Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands indicated Tuesday that they would follow suit. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker, an independent, is the only non-Democrat involved in the campaign, called AGs United for Clean Power.
“The bottom line is simple: Climate change is real; it is a threat to all the people we represent,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “If there are companies, whether they’re utilities, whether they’re fossil fuel companies, committing fraud in an effort to maximize their short-term profits at the expense of the people we represent, we want to find out about it. We want to expose it and want to pursue them to the fullest extent of the law.”
Mr. Schneiderman also announced that 20 attorneys general representing 18 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands filed a brief Tuesday in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan rule, which has been challenged by attorneys general in 25 mostly red states.
The campaign was spurred by articles last year alleging Exxon hid research conducted by its own scientists linking fossil fuel emissions and global warming. Exxon officials have denied the claims and countered that the investigation was conducted by journalism entities that receive funding from foundations known for their climate change activism.
Suzanne McCarron, Exxon’s vice president for public and government affairs, said Tuesday in a statement that the accusations are meritless.
“The allegations are based on the false premise that ExxonMobil 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,” Ms. McCarron said. “Such a claim is preposterous.”
Marc Morano, who heads the pro-industry website Climate Depot, warned that the state officials’ legal campaign against the oil-and-gas industry would “have a chilling effect on free speech and scientific dissent.”
“Gore joined with attention-seeking attorneys general to essentially try to shut down any ‘global warming’ views that differ from the United Nations’ or Gore’s,” said Mr. Morano in an email. “Agree or face investigations is the new normal for the climate debate.”
Mr. Gore, who narrated the 2006 climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” said rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are fueling natural disasters ranging from flooding to snowstorms to the recent outbreak of the Zika virus.
“Every night on the news now it’s like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation,” Mr. Gore said at the New York press conference, which was live streamed.
Mr. Morano, whose 2015 documentary “Climate Hustle” disputes the disastrous climate change scenarios, called Mr. Gore “frustrated that his message is still not resonating 10 years after his movie came out.”
“So he apparently has decided that anyone who disagrees with him on ‘global warming’ should face investigations, fines and penalties and be silenced,” Mr. Morano said.
A chill on free speech?
At the press conference Mr. Schneiderman headed off queries about whether the state investigations would chill free speech by freezing legitimate debate over climate change. While many scientists support the catastrophic climate change narrative, others have criticized what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Richard Lindzen describes as “climate alarmism.”
“There have been those who have raised the question, ‘Aren’t you interfering with people’s First Amendment rights?’” said Mr. Schneiderman. “The First Amendment, ladies and gentlemen, does not give you the right to commit fraud.”
Climate change groups launched the social media campaign #ExxonKnew last year in response to articles by InsideClimate News and the Columbia School of Journalism’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project that cited internal ExxonMobil documents warning of global warming.
The news reports touched off a brouhaha over journalistic independence after ExxonMobil pointed out that both outlets receive funding from the liberal Rockefeller Family Fund, which has backed advocacy groups that oppose fossil fuels, including 350.org.
“I think the two big headlines coming out of this are that this entire issue continues to be based on a horrendously reported series of stories that rely on cherry-picked statements at every turn,” said Katie Brown of Energy in Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, in a Tuesday statement.
She added that “the vast majority of attorneys general that stood up on stage today have no interest at all in wasting their own state’s resources the way that New York has.”
Lew Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, told Reuters last week that “no specific company” was targeted by the grants, but that the fund supports “public interest journalism to better understand how the fossil fuel industry was dealing with the reality of climate science internally and publicly.”
InsideClimate News and Columbia have maintained that donors have no influence over their reporting. The Los Angeles Times, which ran the Columbia report in October, later added a note listing the project’s funders, including the Rockefeller Family Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as well as the pro-wind-and-solar Energy Foundation, according to Energy in Depth.
Mr. Gore compared the campaign to the state-led prosecution of tobacco companies that led to a multistate $206 billion settlement in 1998.
“[T]he Congress has been sharply constraining [the] ability of [the] executive branch to fully perform its obligations under the Constitution to protect the American people against the kind of fraud that the evidence suggests is being committed by several of the fossil fuel companies, electric utilities burning coal and the like,” Mr. Gore said. “So what these attorneys general are doing is exceptionally important.”
That comparison led Mr. Morano to suggest that the attorneys general may be seeking another payday, accusing them of targeting the oil-and-gas industry in pursuit of “huge financial settlements.”
Mr. Schneiderman also denied that the attorneys general have already made up their minds about the guilt of companies in committing fraud.
“We’re in [the] early stages of the case. We’re not prejudging the evidence. We’ve seen some things that have been published by you and others,” Mr. Schneiderman told reporters. “But it is our obligation to take a look at the underlying documentation and to get at all the evidence.”