Texas bill would shield Exxon from potential suit over climate change


After Exxon was targeted by other states’ attorneys general, state Rep. James White says science is on trial.

White’s bill would bar a defendant’s views on climate science from being used as evidence in fraud cases.

Bill would apply only to Texas law, even as such a case moves forward elsewhere.

Concerned about what he calls the “overcriminalization” of society, an East Texas lawmaker has drafted a bill that would protect one potential defendant not conventionally considered a marginalized victim of injustice: Exxon Mobil.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, has proposed barring a defendant’s theories on climate change from being used as evidence in a fraud or deceptive practice case.

White told the American-Statesman he had in mind Irving-based Exxon, which Democratic state attorneys general targeted last year, claiming the company had lied to investors and the public about the threat of climate change.

“There have been some instances where people could get thrown into court or even potentially threatened with some kind of criminal punishment based on their belief or scientific take on global warming,” he said. “I don’t think that’s how science should operate.”

He continued: “What would it look like if Copernicus was sued based on his belief that Earth and other planets were circling the sun?”

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“If your business model is selling gasoline, and your thing is you don’t think it’s that big an impact on global warming — OK,” he said. “I don’t see candy companies doing advertisements for dental offices, and I don’t see that as a conspiracy.”

Attorneys general from New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere, supported by environmental groups, announced their investigations after the news organizations Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times showed that Exxon played down the risks of climate change despite the company’s scientists having raised red flags about it. Reporters found that even though the company’s researchers as long as ago as the 1970s warned that the burning of fossil fuels would contribute to climate change, the company for decades sowed doubt about climate science by stressing uncertainty.

White’s House Bill 420 would apply to Texas state law, but at least one case against Exxon is moving forward elsewhere. Last month, a Massachusetts judge refused to excuse Exxon Mobil from a demand by that state’s attorney general to hand over years of documents on its views on climate change.

But on Wednesday, Exxon sought to move the case to Texas, arguing in federal court in Dallas that the attorneys general had abused the company’s free speech rights and that their probe amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure of corporate documents.

Environmentalists have framed the actions of Exxon and other oil companies as echoing the disinformation campaigns of cigarette companies about the dangers of tobacco.

But White, who represents five East Texas counties, said if the attorneys general could win in the Exxon case, “then there are other types of shakedowns” to come.

That opinion echoes that of other Texas state officials who have come to Exxon’s defense, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had sued his U.S. Virgin Islands counterpart over his investigation involving ExxonMobil and climate change.

Last summer, Paxton withdrew a lawsuit against the Virgin Islands official after he agreed to suspend his investigation, which had included a far-reaching subpoena for Exxon records that Paxton had argued was unconstitutional.

Paxton said last month that he sued after talking the matter over with other members of the Republican Attorneys General Association.

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Paxton said the Exxon investigation had amounted to a fishing expedition that impinged on the company’s free speech protections.

The Republican Attorneys General Association has received at least $110,000 from Exxon Mobil since 2014, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, and at least $2 million from the fossil fuel industry.

A 2014 New York Times investigation focusing on then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt outlined how energy executives had benefited from their relationships with state attorneys general — and how the attorneys general had won campaign contributions from the companies.

On Thursday, a U.S. Senate committee approved Pruitt’s nomination to head the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Asked during his confirmation hearings last month to become U.S. secretary of state whether humans contributed to global warming, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson said: “The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our abilities to predict that effect are very limited.”

Money from oil and gas interests accounts for about 2 percent of contributions to White’s campaign since 2010, according to an analysis by Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit that tracks money and politics. And state campaign finance records turn up no contributions from Exxon to White, who said he thought climate change was, to some degree, ascribable to human activity.

“What degree that is, and to what degree that we have to make changes in our lifestyle — that’s open to vibrant, vigorous debate and research,” he said. “To the extent that we have to get into all sorts of intrusive processes, like carbon taxes that drastically place regulatory regimes on our people that other parts of the world would not put on themselves, thereby making our economy less competitive?”

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