Editorial: California can’t let an oil company use legal bullying to silence its critics

Bay Area government officials among those Exxon accusing of ‘lawfare’

For decades, oil giant ExxonMobil Corp. helped spread lies about the deadly threat of global warming. It manufactured doubt about the link between fossil fuels and destructive changes to the Earth’s climate — even though its own scientists knew burning dirty fossil fuels could cause climate disaster as far back as the 1970s.

Exxon knew, but Exxon selfishly put its own profits before the people and the planet we call home. Now, in a stunning act that proves Exxon’s villainy knows no bounds, the company is trying to harass and silence its critics using a Texas law called Rule 202.

“ExxonMobil is attempting to use an unusual Texas law to target and intimidate its critics, claiming lawsuits against the company over its long history of downplaying and denying the climate crisis violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free speech,” wrote Guardian US reporter Chris McGreal in a story published in The Examiner on Jan. 20 as part of a collaboration with Covering Climate Now. “The U.S.’s largest oil firm is asking the Texas Supreme Court to allow it to use the law, known as rule 202, to pursue legal action against more than a dozen California municipal officials.”

Targets of Exxon’s strategy include the county governments of Marin and San Mateo, along with specific Bay Area officials like former San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker. McGreal wrote that the company is going after Herrera, who is now general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, because “he accused fossil fuel companies of launching a ‘disinformation campaign to deny and discredit’ the reality of global heating, and pledged to hold the companies responsible ‘to account.’” Exxon is targeting Parker for putting out a press release that said, “It is past time to debate or question the reality of global warming … Just like BIG TOBACCO, BIG OIL knew the truth long ago and peddled misinformation to con their customers and the American public.”

Exxon alleges its opponents have conspired to “suppress Texas-based speech about climate and energy policies.” In other words, Exxon wants to bully those who speak the truth and protect the public good. Unfortunately, a Texas rule may allow corporations like Exxon to abuse the legal system.

“Rule 202 in effect allows corporations to go on a fishing expedition for incriminating evidence,” wrote McGreal. “They are able to question individuals under oath and demand access to documents even before any legal action is filed against them. Exxon wants to use the provision to force the California officials to travel to Texas to be questioned by the firm’s lawyers about what the company describes as ‘lawfare’ — the misuse of the legal system for political ends.”

In its petition to the Texas Supreme Court, the company makes claims of “potential violations of ExxonMobil’s rights in Texas to exercise its First Amendment privileges.” Translation: Free speech laws gave Exxon the right to spread disinformation.

How rich. Exxon wraps itself in the mantle of free speech while simultaneously using the courts as a weapon to silence critics. Exxon accuses critics of engaging in “lawfare” while openly abusing the law to torment opponents. But such a flagrant display of twisted logic comes as no surprise from a corporation that lied about the existential threat of climate change.

Bullying is nothing new for Exxon, said Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, co-author of “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.”

“Now that the arguments have moved into the legal sphere, this feels to me like an extension of the sort of harassment, bullying and intimidation that we’ve seen in the scientific sphere for the last two decades,” Oreskes told McGreal.

California can’t allow climate change deniers to use Texas laws to undermine truth and accountability. Rather than allow Exxon’s tactic to have a chilling effect on criticism, every citizen, leader and public interest organization in California should make sure this strategy backfires. As this immoral corporation tries to rewrite history and crush dissent, we are duty-bound to remind the world how Exxon helped create an existential threat to life on Earth while blatantly denying the science.

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