Congress Subpoenas Climate Scientists in Effort to Hamper ExxonMobil Fraud Investigation

ExxonMobil executives may have intentionally misled the public about climate change – for decades. And the House Science Committee just hampered legal efforts to learn more about ExxonMobil’s actions by subpoenaing the nonprofit scientists who sought to find out what the fossil fuel giant knew and when.

For 40 years, tobacco companies intentionally misled consumers to believe that smoking wasn’t harmful. Now it appears that many in the fossil fuel industry may have applied similarly deceptive tactics – and for just as long – to confuse the public about the dangers of climate change.

Investigative research by nonprofit groups like InsideClimate News and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have turned up evidence that ExxonMobil may have known about the hazards of fossil-fuel driven climate change back in the 1970s. However, rather than informing the public or taking steps to reduce such risks, documents indicate that ExxonMobil leadership chose to cover up their findings and instead convince the public that climate science couldn’t be trusted.

As a result of these findings, the Attorneys General (AGs) from New York and Massachusetts launched a legal investigation to determine if ExxonMobil committed fraud, including subpoenaing the company for more information. That’s when the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith stepped in.

Chairman Smith, under powerful new House rules, unilaterally subpoenaed not just the AGs, but also many of the nonprofits involved in the ExxonMobil investigation, including groups like the UCS. Smith and other House representatives argue that they’re merely supporting ExxonMobil’s rights to free speech and to form opinions based on scientific research.

However, no one is targeting ExxonMobil for expressing an opinion. The Attorneys General and the nonprofits are investigating what may have been intentional fraud.

In a public statement, Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists said:

“We do not accept Chairman Smith’s premise that fraud, if committed by ExxonMobil, is protected by the First Amendment. It’s beyond ironic for Chairman Smith to violate our actual free speech rights in the name of protecting ExxonMobil’s supposed right to misrepresent the work of its own scientists and deceive shareholders and the public. […]

“Smith is misusing the House Science Committee’s subpoena power in a way that should concern everyone across the political spectrum. Today, the target is UCS and others concerned about climate change. But if these kinds of subpoenas are allowed, who will be next and on what basis?”

In fact, Chairman Smith also subpoenaed climate scientists at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the fall of 2015 and again earlier this year. UCS representatives are referring to this as a blatant “abuse of power” on the part of the government and ExxonMobil.

Gretchen Goldman, a lead analyst for UCS, wrote: “Abuse of power is when a company exploits its vast political network to squash policies that would address climate change.”

The complete list of nonprofits subpoenaed by Chairman Smith includes: 350.org, the Climate Accountability Institute, the Climate Reality Project, Greenpeace, Pawa Law Group PC, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Editorial note:

At FLI, we strive to remain nonpartisan and apolitical. Our goal — to ensure a bright future for humanity — clearly spans the political spectrum. However, we cannot, in good conscience, stand back and simply witness this political attack on science in silence. To understand and mitigate climate change, we need scientific research. We need political leaders to let scientists do their jobs without intimidation.