Why Did Paxton Jump into Exxon’s Climate Fight?

The Texas attorney general filed a brief in support of Exxon Mobile after the company has received subpoenas of its internal documents related to climate change research from decades ago.

By Rhonda FanningMay 17, 2016 11:40 am

Yesterday, oil and gas giant Exxon Mobile got a little help from a perhaps unlikely source: the Texas attorney general. The Irving-based energy company is under investigation by several states over whether they’ve lied to investors and the public about the threat of climate change. But in a Tarrant County court filing on Monday, Attorney General Ken Paxton singled out his counterpart in the Virgin Islands calling the investigation a “fishing expedition,” saying it was based on ideology and not law. So just what is going on with the investigation, and what if anything will Paxton’s involvement mean?>?

Loren Steffy, a writer at large for Texas Monthly and a columnist for Energy Voice, says the investigation stems from an Inside Climate News report earlier this year that found Exxon had conducted its own research on climate change in the 1970s and 80s, showing that climate change was real.

“Exxon’s CEO at the time basically didn’t believe it and continued to make statements saying that climate change wasn’t happening,” he says.

Exxon’s legal standing is a result of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, that treats corporations like people, extending First Amendment rights to them. But Steffy says a more fundamental rule may be at play: business judgment, which says that businesses should be free to make mistakes.

“There’s a lot of legal ambiguity here in terms of the leeway that companies have to make decisions,” he says. “I think it’s going to be very hard to prove that the evidence from these studies was irrefutable and the company acted against not only the best interests of society but really, ultimately, against its own best interests as well.”

The Virgin Islands filed a subpoena to find out what Exxon Mobile knew about climate change and when. Paxton and his Alabama counterpart filed briefs. Paxton’s involvement may not change much on the Exxon side, but Steffy says it doesn’t come as a surprise, because he’s taken campaign money from oil and gas interests. Other attorneys general in oil and gas states have been on the side of these corporations as well.

“It’s very unusual for an attorney general to jump in on the side of a big corporation like this,” Steffy says. “This is very much becoming a political battle, as well as a legal one.”

Post prepared by Hannah McBride.