UPDATE (July 13, 2016): UCS has denounced a subpoena issued by Chairman Smith.
UPDATE (June 24, 2016): On June 17, UCS received a second request letter from Chairman Smith seeking the same documents. We will respond in a timely manner. UCS rejected the first request letter on June 1. Meanwhile, House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson just released a letter calling on Chairman Smith to “immediately cease this abuse of authority.” The letter details how Chairman Smith has wholly misrepresented the purpose of the attorneys’ general investigation and calls into question the constitutionality of the chairman’s actions.
On Wednesday, I received a letter signed by thirteen members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. In my thirty years as an attorney, public official, and now UCS President, I have never seen anything quite like it. The letter states that the House Science Committee is “conducting oversight of a coordinated attempt to deprive companies, non-profit organizations and scientists of their First Amendment rights.” This sounds like an oversight effort UCS could support—but for what follows.
The representatives are requesting “all documents and communications” between UCS and state attorneys general and between UCS and other NGOs related to our work to hold oil and gas companies accountable for deception. Apparently, these elected representatives believe that UCS and others have infringed on the free speech rights of fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil.
How? By sharing information with these attorneys general about whether ExxonMobil and others misled the public about the dangers of climate change, and by explaining how climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is harming people and places in their states.
You know what else this tells me? The campaign to hold companies accountable is working.
How absurd is this request?
Let’s start with the premise of the letter—that the free speech rights of companies such as ExxonMobil are violated by an investigation. This is nonsense. No company has a First Amendment right to knowingly provide misinformation about the harm associated with its product (in this case the emissions of heat trapping gases from the combustion of fossil fuels). And attorneys general have every right to investigate whether the companies’ actions amounted to an actionable fraud.
In fact, the letter itself compromises the First Amendment rights of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the other recipients of this letter.
What else does the First Amendment protect?
The First Amendment protects the rights of all citizens to “petition for a governmental redress of grievances.” This right is the foundation of our democracy and is exercised daily by millions of Americans when they:
- meet with or write to public officials,
- attend public hearings, and
- associate or share information with other people or organizations.
That is precisely what the Union of Concerned Scientists does, and has done, for its nearly 50-year history. And this is the right of every citizen of the United States. Of course we provided information to state attorneys general and our allies that is relevant to investigations into the deceptive practices of fossil fuel companies in regard to climate science and policy. Members of Congress, of all people, should hold the right to petition government in the highest regard, and not attempt to chill this right through heavy-handed action.
A second irony is that the letter suggests that we are secretly “colluding” with the AGs by meeting with them to provide advice, yet seeks information about activity which is already detailed publicly on our website. We published and posted the “Climate Deception Dossiers,” which details how major fossil fuel companies have participated in a campaign to sow doubt about climate change as a way to block sensible reforms. We have spoken publicly about our work at many gatherings in the United States and elsewhere and shared our information with anyone who wants to learn about it.
In contrast, the actions of fossil fuel companies are often hidden in the shadows of dark money, trade associations, and groups with anodyne names that obscure their actual purpose.
Why the focus on UCS?
Perhaps we see momentum today because of the calls for accountability that we and others have made. Since we published the Climate Deception Dossiers, numerous reporters have unearthed important internal documents from leading fossil fuel companies with stunning information that their scientist had linked their products to harmful climate change as early as the 1960s, yet spent decades questioning climate science and delaying action. Now, four attorneys general offices have commenced investigations, and numerous elected representatives have called for a federal investigation. Some fossil fuel companies and their allies are no doubt feeling pressure, and they are pushing back.
I would hate to think that the House Science Committee is using its governmental powers in aid of this effort. But whatever the motive for the letter, UCS will not be intimidated. We will continue to provide assistance to any government official that wants to conduct genuine and meaningful oversight over the actions of fossil fuel companies.
UPDATE, 5/23/2016: For more on ExxonMobil’s claims around First Amendment rights and its climate deception, check out my colleague Gretchen Goldman’s blog here.
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