Exxon Sues Massachusetts Attorney General to Block Climate Fraud Investigation
ExxonMobil filed a lawsuit against Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in an effort to block a subpoena that would require the oil and gas giant to hand over 40 years of internal communications relating to whether the company misrepresented its knowledge of climate change to investors.
The 33-page injunction was filed in federal district court in Fort Worth, Texas on Wednesday.
In the searing complaint, Exxon called the investigation a "fishing expedition" that is "nothing more than a weak pretext for an unlawful exercise of government power to further political objectives."
“Attorney General Healey is abusing the power of government to silence a speaker she disfavors,” the complaint states.
Exxon believes Healey’s April 19 subpoena violates its constitutional rights on free speech, unreasonable search and seizure and equal protection, Reuters reported. The company seeks either an injunction to halt the investigation or for the court to rule that the investigation is without legal merit.
In response to the lawsuit, Healey’s office said that its investigation is "based not on speculation, but on inconsistencies about climate change in Exxon documents which have been made public."
"The First Amendment does not protect false and misleading statements in the marketplace," Healey's communications director Cyndi Roy Gonzalez said in a statement provided to EcoWatch.
Exxon using Big Tobacco's failed free speech defense for decades of #climate deception https://t.co/Hutt2I8tW5 via @EcoWatch #ExxonKnew— Climate Nexus (@Climate Nexus)1461801421.0
The Boston Herald reported that Healey’s broad subpoena is also demanding communications between Exxon and 12 think tanks that are critical of climate change, as well as information on whether Exxon funded the groups.
According to the Herald, Exxon does not believe it should respond to the subpoena because of a four-year statute of limitations on Healey’s claims. It also has not sold fuel, owned a retail location or sold securities in Massachusetts during that time.
"Exxon’s assertion that we cannot investigate it because the company has not engaged in business here in Massachusetts is completely preposterous and is a clear attempt to delay and distract from the real issues," Gonzalez countered. "We will continue to fight aggressively on the basis of our clear legal authority to obtain the information that we need to ensure the Massachusetts public is protected."
Exxon has brought a similar suit against Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker in the same Fort Worth district court. The company also says that Walker’s subpoena demanding internal climate change-related records violates its free speech and should be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.
"For many months, Exxon Mobil has engaged in an unprecedented effort to limit the ability of state attorneys general to investigate fraud and unfair business practices and to protect Massachusetts consumers, investors and the public," Gonzalez said.
Healey and Walker are among 20 state Attorneys General that have launched a multi-state effort to investigate and prosecute Exxon and other industry giants for fraud and suppression of key climate science.
The coalition was convened by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who in November announced a state investigation into Exxon after reporting revealed that the oil giant had for decades known and suppressed evidence about the dangers that fossil fuels posed to the environment and then purposely disseminated false information in order to boost its profits.
Exxon's Climate 'Scandal' Escalates As NY Attorney General Issues Subpoena https://t.co/94OM5Of2qG @ClimateCentral @TheCCoalition— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1446861627.0
"It is deeply troubling that Exxon has taken the extraordinary step of refusing to comply with a lawful subpoena sent in the course of a serious fraud investigation," Schneiderman spokesman Matt Mittenthal told EcoWatch in response to the suit against Healey. "The law is clear: The First Amendment does not give any corporation the right to commit fraud."
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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