House democrats and state attorneys general are promoting legal action against ExxonMobil for spreading misinformation about the impacts of fossil fuels on human health and the climate in the interest of profit. Prosecutors have compared this injustice to the lies circulated by Big Tobacco.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the oil giant funded research that substantiated modern climate science. In other words, they knew that burning coal, oil and gas releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and causes climate change.
Exxon and other fossil fuel developers like Koch Industries and Peabody Energy spent the next several decades funding false information campaigns through industry conservative think tanks and advocacy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation and the US Chamber of Commerce. DeSmog estimates denial dollars from Exxon and the Koch Family Foundation alone amount to more than $124 million over two decades.
Lawmakers, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Barbara Boxer have proposed an investigation into how much the big polluters knew about the environmental and health implications of burning fossil fuels. The tobacco industries were punished for obscuring peer-reviewed science; why shouldn’t fossil fuel companies follow suit?
Earlier this year, 17 state attorneys generals, acting as “AGs United for Clean Power,” formed a coalition to bring the falsifying climate financiers to justice.
“If there are companies…committing fraud in an effort to maximize their short-term profit at the expense of the people we represent, we want…to expose it and… prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law,” said New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, the groups leader.
In response, the Chairman of the House of Science Committee, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, submitted a subpoena to the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general claiming, “The Committee has a responsibility to protect First Amendment rights of companies, academic institutions, scientists and nonprofit organizations. That is why the Committee is obligated to ask for information from the attorneys general and others.”
As the Guardian pointed out, the first amendment argument was already used by the tobacco industry and it failed. During that case, Judge Gladys Kessler stated, “The First Amendment does not protect defendants’ False and misleading public statements.”
Sharon Eubanks, the former U.S. Department of Justice litigator who won the lawsuit against big tobacco, thinks the polluters could be convicted under the same anti-racketeering laws that she used in her case.