House GOP subpoenas Dem state AGs in Exxon climate probe

House GOP subpoenas Dem state AGs in Exxon climate probe
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House Republicans are sending subpoenas to two Democratic state attorneys general, accusing them of trying to intimidate climate change skeptics.

Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithEx-GOP Rep. Denham heads to lobbying firm K Street boom extends under Trump, House Dems Ex-GOP congressman heads to investment bank MORE (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, issued the subpoenas Wednesday, ignoring arguments from the attorneys general and greens that he has no authority to carry out his probe, let alone force them to turn over records.

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The subpoenas are being sent to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D), along with eight environmental groups Smith says colluded with them, and a law firm.

The subpoenas significantly ratchet up the ongoing fight in which environmentalists are trying to punish Exxon Mobil Corp., the country’s largest oil and natural gas producer, for its role in climate change.

“It is regrettable that two state attorneys general and several organizations continue to threaten legitimate scientific debate about climate change,” Smith said at a Wednesday news conference with five of his Science Committee colleagues. “It is necessary for the committee to issue subpoenas in order for the American people to understand the negative impacts of the actions.”

Smith’s investigation stems from reports published last year in the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News that Exxon knew as early as the 1970s that fossil fuels cause climate change, yet chose to sow doubt about the link publicly.

The attorneys general being subpoenaed are investigating whether Exxon’s actions violated laws in their states about lying to the public or investors. They’ve demanded documents and testimony from various conservative and industry groups along with Exxon.

Their probes resulted in loud protests from Exxon, Republicans and their allied think tanks and industry groups, who charged that any statements Exxon made were protected by the First Amendment and that the investigations are attempts to intimidate the company and others.

“The actions by the attorneys general amount to a form of extortion,” Smith said Wednesday. “They want the companies to settle out of court so they can obtain funds for their own purposes.”

Smith, who denies the scientific consensus that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are the main driver of climate change, only obtained the power to issue binding subpoenas last year.

He had earlier tried to obtain the documents with letters, without filing subpoenas.

Smith acknowledged that it is likely the first time that Congress has subpoenaed a state attorney general, but he said the panel is on “solid ground” legally and constitutionally in its rights to demand records.

He denied accusations Wednesday that his efforts either trample on free-speech rights or on the rights of states.

“We are 100 percent confident that we are not engaging in any action that would go beyond our jurisdiction or beyond our obligations,” he said, adding, “I don’t see that this has anything to do with states’ rights.”

Schneiderman and Healey castigated Smith for his subpoenas.

“Chairman Smith and his allies have zero credibility on this issue, and are either unwilling or unable to grasp that the singular purpose of these investigations is to determine whether Exxon committed serious violations of state securities fraud, business fraud, and consumer fraud laws,” Eric Soufer, a spokesman for Schneiderman, said in a statement.
 
“This committee has no authority to interfere with these state law enforcement investigations, and whether they issue a subpoena or not, this attorney general will not be intimidated or deterred from ensuring that every New Yorker receives the full protection of state laws.”
 
Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Healey, accused Smith of conducting his probe “at the behest of Big Oil,” and said the Massachusetts investigation is not a First Amendment violation.
 
“Congress does not have the authority to interfere with a state inquiry into whether a private company violated state laws, and we will continue to fight any and all efforts to stop our investigation,” Gonzalez said.
 
The Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the groups subpoenaed, said it would fight Smith’s demand, labeling it as an infringement of the group’s right to free speech.

“We’re prepared to do all we can to protect our First Amendment rights to associate with other organizations and to provide information to attorneys general,” Michael Halpern, the group’s manager for strategy, said outside the news conference in the Capitol.

May Boeve, director of 350.org, a green group that was targeted, called Smith’s actions an “obvious attempt by Exxon's Congressional allies to intimidate critics of the company.”
 
“It's going to have the opposite effect,” she said. “We will continue to assert our First Amendment rights to speak the truth about climate change and Exxon's ongoing history of deception. They may want to silence us, but we’re just going to keep getting louder.”

Earlier, the states and greens refused to comply with Smith’s demands.

Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker (I) is also investigating Exxon, though he withdrew his court subpoena last month.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) has an investigation ongoing as well.