Climate change activists have for the past year been urging the Department of Justice and state attorneys general to investigate ExxonMobil, think tanks, and other corporations and organizations that have expressed skepticism or otherwise presented contrary views either on the science or the policy of climate change regulatory action. These calls include members of Congress petitioning the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Exxon and its “brain trust” violated civil RICO, an ongoing Martin Act investigation launched last fall by the New York Attorney General, and more recently, subpoenas issued by the US Virgin Islands and civil investigative demands from the Massachusetts AG. A press conference on March 29, 2016 attended by former vice-president Al Gore, represented that these calls for investigations are supported by a coalition of 20 attorneys general. The next day a majority of state attorneys general, 29 in all, issued a press release that they would not be joining in that call for investigations or other regulatory action, citing respect for the rule of law and the First Amendment. Asserting that good science embraces disagreement and the chilling effect on research when the government decides what is “truth” and what is “fraud,” these majority states revealed a stark divide in our polity about the proper role of the executive branch – state and federal – in formulating, enforcing and financing climate change policy.
At the March 29, 2016 press conference, former vice-President Gore asserted that “our democracy’s been hacked” and that these state and federal enforcement actions were necessary to remedy Congress’s and other legislative inactivity. In this Teleforum, Andrew Grossman – who has been involved in both defending targets of the subpoenas and in challenging the lawfulness of their issuance – discussed some of the legal and policy questions implicated by this division between the states, and the executive branches and Congress, such as: Should a corporation’s published research that expresses concerns about climate change be grounds for civil RICO or other regulatory action? Would such potential liability disincentive research? Should the government decide what is truth and what is not in the historically uncertain arena of science? Should those matters be decided in legislative hearings with the opportunity for the expression of multiple views on the science, policy, and proposed solutions? Should there have to be a substantiated allegation of unlawful conduct before such investigatory powers are wielded? Who has been defrauded? Is there harm in forcing corporations and think tanks to open up their records, research and communications – isn’t that a good way to determine whether there has been fraud on the energy markets? On the other hand, has Exxon sold oil or raised capital by claiming climate change is not affected by fossil fuels? Are consumers/investors uncritical consumers of industry information? What are the pros and cons of legislative action, inaction or accretional action versus sweeping state and federal executive enforcement actions? What regulatory authority or past practice provides a template for these investigations, and what are their practical and historical goals and outcomes? Do think tanks have a different status vis-a-vis the First Amendment than a for profit business selling fossil fuels, and if so what role, if any, does the source of their funding play?
- Andrew Grossman, Partner, Baker & Hostetler LLP and Adjunct Scholar, The Cato Institute
- Margaret A. (Peggy) Little, Partner, Little and Little, & Director, The Federalist Society's Pro Bono Center