N.Y. Picks Fight With D.C. Over Exxon Climate Probe Papers

  • State is investigating company’s statements to investors
  • Schneiderman says subpoena is unprecedented interference

New York officials won’t comply with a demand from Congress for information on its probe of whether Exxon Mobil Corp. misled investors and the public about how climate change may affect its business, widening a partisan divide over the investigation.

The demand from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will impede the investigation and represents an “unprecedented effort” to target a state probe, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, said Tuesday in a letter to Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee.

The subpoena is an “unconstitutional and unwarranted interference” in a legitimate ongoing state investigation, Richard Johnston, the chief legal counsel for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy, also a Democrat, said in a letter Tuesday similarly objecting to the demand.

Attorneys general from more than a dozen states have joined forces to fight global warming and look into whether companies have understated its effects in violation of state business, consumer and securities fraud laws. The group may jointly investigate the climate-change disclosures of oil and natural-gas companies, Schneiderman said in a statement in March.

Politically Motivated

Exxon, based in Irving, Texas, has called the state probes politically motivated and rejects claims that the company violated Securities and Exchange Commission rules.

"We first included information in SEC filings about business risk related to climate change in 2007, several years before the SEC first issued guidance on the issue in 2010," Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said in an e-mail. The company "believes the risk of climate change is clear and warrants action."

A call to Smith’s office wasn’t immediately returned. Members of his committee have previously said the attorneys general behind the investigations are abusing their power and wasting taxpayer money.

The committee claims it’s investigating the state probes on the grounds that they may be violating Exxon’s Constitutional right to free speech. Schneiderman’s office called that a "pretense," saying in the letter that “the First Amendment does not shield fraud.”

Smith’s group doesn’t have the authority to ask for the information and his request "raises grave federalism concerns," Leslie Dubeck, one of Schneiderman’s lawyers, said in the letter. "It is not enough that some creative attorney might find a way theoretically to connect this inquiry to the committee’s generally stated authority."

Legal Confrontation

"The subpoena brings us one step closer to a protracted, unnecessary legal confrontation,” Dubeck wrote. The attorney general "remains willing to explore whether the committee has any legitimate legislative purpose in the requested materials."

New York’s investigation followed articles by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times alleging Exxon’s scientists discovered evidence that man-made emissions were changing the climate as far back as 1977.

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