Go digging into Exxon Mobil’s past and you’ll almost certainly hear from a particular House Republican with a long history of denying climate change.
Each time a new probe is launched into Exxon’s suppression of climate change research ― and there have been several ― Smith comes running, demanding documents related to those investigations and parroting the oil and gas giant’s go-to First Amendment defense.
His latest showing of support for the industry that has given him $679,947 since 1989 is among his boldest, and some say most absurd, to date.
In a letter Thursday, Smith demanded that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ― that’s right, the federal government ― turn over to him all documents related to its investigation into how Exxon Mobil values future projects amid climate change and plunging oil prices.
Smith even gave SEC Chair Mary Jo White a deadline to comply with his request: Oct. 13, two weeks from the date of the letter.
Bevis Longstreth, a Huffington Post contributor and former SEC commissioner appointed by President Ronald Reagan, told The Huffington Post that the SEC “can just tell [Smith] to go to hell.” Smith’s attempt to flex his muscle, Longstreth said, “shows just how little muscle he really has.”
SEC investigations are confidential, to protect evidence and company reputations. In most cases, the agency will neither confirm or deny an ongoing investigation ― as was the case this month when news of its Exxon investigation broke.
At the end of the day, Smith’s request is “meaningless,” Longstreth told HuffPost.
“[The SEC] can’t have anyone, including the president, interfere in an investigation,” he said, adding that the attempt to do so is “going to end up making Smith look like a damn fool.”
Smith did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
In his letter to White, Smith said his committee “is troubled” by the SEC probe and suggested the investigation is “couched in concerns related to the science of climate change.”
“The Committee is concerned that the SEC, by wielding its enforcement authority against companies like Exxon for its collection of and reliance on what is perhaps in the SEC’s view inadequate climate data used to value its assets, advances a prescriptive climate change orthodoxy that may chill further climate change research throughout the public and private scientific R&D sector,” reads the letter, which is signed only by Smith.
“More disturbingly,” Smith writes, The Wall Street Journal “directly linked” the SEC inquiry to a separate investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D).
In November 2015, Schneiderman subpoenaed Exxon, seeking documents related to allegations that the company lied to its investors and committed fraud by covering up the risks of climate change for decades. In March, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) said her office would join the probe.
This spring, a larger coalition called AGs United for Clean Power formed after reports by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times found that Exxon executives were aware of the climate risks associated with carbon dioxide emissions, but funded research to cover up those risks and block solutions.
Smith responded to the New York and Massachusetts probes ― which he said “amount to a form of extortion” and are a “blatant effort to silence free speech” ― by subpoenaing not only the attorneys general, but eight environmental groups and nonprofits, including Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists and 350.org.
The subpoenaed parties have refused to comply with Smith’s demands, calling them “unconstitutional,” “unprecedented” and “dangerous.”
It remains to be seen whether Smith will follow up his letter to the SEC by subpoenaing the federal agency.
Carroll Muffett, president of the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law, joked in a statement that “Chairman Smith also issued a subpoena to ‘physics’ for unnecessarily interfering with the oil industry’s climate science agenda.”
There’s no denying that Exxon is in hot water. In a recent investigation, CIEL uncovered documents showing that the oil industry, including Humble Oil (now Exxon Mobil), was aware of the potential link between fossil fuels and carbon emissions no later than 1957, and was “shaping science to shape public opinion” as early as the 1940s.
Just this week, the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, made good on its threat to sue Exxon Mobil Corp., filing what it says is the first U.S. legal action aimed at holding the oil giant accountable for its well-documented climate change cover-up.
The SEC declined to comment on Smith’s latest probe, which seeks information about the “purpose, scope, and origin of the SEC’s investigation into Exxon.” Smith has demanded all documents related to the investigation, including communications between SEC employees and the Department of Justice, the White House, the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general, and nine environmental groups and nonprofits.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) wondered whether there’s a hotline between Exxon Mobil’s legal department and Smith’s office, given the congressman’s history of springing into action.
“We have good evidence to suggest that Exxon knowingly misled the American people into thinking its products don’t harm the environment,” Whitehouse said in an email to The Huffington Post. “Harassing the SEC, as he’s harassed state Attorneys General and the private entities that have petitioned them, is an abuse of the committee’s power.”
For Longstreth, what’s interesting is not Smith’s antics but the SEC investigation. When an SEC inquiry becomes a formal investigation, as is the case with Exxon, “it’s a big deal,” Longstreth told HuffPost.
And regardless of what Smith might think, his demands are not a threat to the SEC, according to Longstreth.
“Even if what he was trying to do was legitimate,” Longstreth said, “that’s not his job.”