Exxon Uses Texas Law Against Its Critics
Known for its hard-nosed tactics to battle any and all litigants, Houston-based ExxonMobil is using a Texas law to gain informational access to critics, on the basis that recent lawsuits filed against the oil giant are an unconstitutional violation of their right to freedom of speech.
The Guardian reports that currently, eight California municipalities have filed lawsuits against Exxon (and other similar firms for climate neglect), seeking compensation for the widespread damage caused by wildfires and other extreme weather brought on by the ravages of climate change. In response, Exxon is attempting to use Texas Rule 202 across state lines -- a law that gives the corporation the authority to request and obtain mountains of information, from documents to depositions -- to mount evidence that California officials are engaging in conspiratorial "lawfare" and infringing upon the company's First Amendment rights.
In its petition to the Texas supreme court, Exxon claims "the potential defendants' lawfare is aimed at chilling the speech of not just Exxon, but of other prominent members of the Texas energy sector on issues of public debate, in this case, climate change."
WFAA: Exxon using unique legal argument to defend against climate change-related lawsuit, January 18, 2021.
Why This Matters
Rule 202 empowers corporations with deep pockets to go on endless "fishing expeditions" for incriminating evidence and is abused in order to intimidate critics and opponents. And the company's attempted use of the rule comes at an awkward time. While trying to defend itself against claims of advancing climate denial and negligence using the First Amendment, Exxon has also just unveiled what it calls "a major initiative" to achieve net-zero emissions and prove its commitment to addressing climate change.
Unsurprisingly, Exxon has the support of Texas Governor Greg Abbott. In a letter to the court, Gov. Abbott writes: "When out-of-state officials try to project their power across our border, as respondents have done by broadly targeting the speech of an industry crucial to Texas, they cannot use personal jurisdiction to scamper out of our courts and retreat across state lines."
Verify Road Trip: Texas Governor Abbott has no plans to address increased threats Texans face from climate change, November 7, 2021.
Is Exxon In Too Deep This Time?
It's unclear if Exxon's motives come from trying to tie municipalities up with expensive legal entanglements and get them to back off, or trying to learn more about behind-the-scenes environmental activism targeting the fossil fuel industry. And time will tell as to whether the Texas supreme court will allow Exxon's claim to move forward in the legal process.
If the conservative state court does choose to proceed, it could set a dangerous precedent. In the words of Naomi Oreskes, prominent professor and author, the oil company's movement into the legal sphere "feels like an extension of the sort of harassment, bullying, and intimidation that we've seen in the scientific sphere for the last two decades."
In courtrooms and boardrooms alike, recent progress has been made when it comes to exposing Exxon's information coverups and promoting accountability. Though Texas may be more sympathetic to big oil, the pressure on Exxon is only growing. Oreskes summarizes the current moment succinctly:
They're pushing their freedom of speech as an issue because more than any other company, it's been proven by people like me and others that they have a track record of promoting half-truths, misrepresentations and in some cases outright lies in the public sphere. This is so well documented that unless they can come up with some strategy to defend it, they're in potentially pretty serious trouble.
Big Oil and Congress
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has just broadened their probe into climate disinformation by Big Oil, inviting board members of fossil fuel companies to testify at a second hearing next month. The committee plans to ask directors "whether their firms' commitments to cut emissions are consistent with the Paris climate accord adopted in 2015."
The YEARS Project: Big Oil Knew Part I, March 6, 2018.
The YEARS Project: Big Oil Knew Part II, March 7, 2018.
The YEARS Project: Big Oil Knew Part III, March 8, 2018.
The YEARS Project: Big Oil Knew Part IV, March 9, 2018.