Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey won a major legal showdown against Exxon Mobil on Wednesday, when a judge ruled that the company must turn over 40 years of documents on climate change.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Heidi E. Brieger denied the company an emergency motion or a protective order that would have blocked Healey’s demand for the company’s internal research on global warming.
The decision came on the same day Exxon Mobil’s former CEO Rex Tillerson was grilled by the Senate over his nomination to become President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state and refused to answer questions about Exxon’s understanding of climate change.
The ruling is a major victory for Healey, who, along with the attorney general of New York, pursued probes into Exxon Mobil after reports published in 2015 suggested the company had encouraged climate-change confusion for years after its own scientists established the risks.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Healey said the Massachusetts court had affirmed her authority to investigate potential fraud and she blasted Exxon for its aggressive pushback.
“Exxon must now end its obstructive tactics and come clean about whether it misled Massachusetts consumers and investors about what it knew about climate change, its causes and effects,” she said.
An Exxon spokesman said the company is reviewing the decision.
Healey still faces a complaint from Exxon Mobil in a federal court in Texas, where the company is based. The judge in that case had seemed inclined to favor Exxon, originally demanding that both attorneys general appear in Texas to defend their jurisdiction. But he has postponed hearings and depositions while awaiting additional briefs due Feb. 1.
In the Massachusetts decision issued Wednesday, Brieger refused to grant Exxon Mobil a stay pending resolution of the case in Texas, determining the matter should be heard in Massachusetts, because it involves the Massachusetts consumer protection statute and Massachusetts case law arising under it, “about which the Massachusetts Superior Court is certainly more familiar than would be a federal court in Texas.”
After Healey announced her probe, Exxon Mobil sued Healey in two separate courts claiming she lacked jurisdiction to investigate, her demand was unreasonable, and her effort, politically motivated. As evidence, Exxon cited her comments at a March 2016 press conference as prejudicial.
Specifically, she had said: “Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change should be, must be, held accountable. . . . We can all see today the troubling disconnect between what Exxon knew, what industry folks knew, and what the company and industry chose to share with investors and with the American public.”
Brieger wrote that Healey was merely explaining the basis for her belief that Exxon might have violated consumer protection statutes. The attorney general has not only the right, but also the duty to investigate the company if she believes it misled consumers and investors, Brieger ruled.
“Nothing in the Attorney General’s comments at the press conference indicates to the court that she is doing anything more than explaining reasons for her investigation to the Massachusetts consumers she represents,” Brieger wrote.
The judge also rejected Exxon’s argument that Healey’s request for documents lacked specificity and imposed an unreasonable burden on the company. Instead, Brieger wrote that the demand “seeks information related to what (and when) Exxon knew about the impacts of burning fossil fuels on climate change and what Exxon told consumers about climate change over the years.” The company had already provided documents to the New York attorney general, she noted.
Exxon has argued that the attorneys general, along with environmental groups, were scapegoating the company and mischaracterizing its research, which it says was evolving along with scientific consensus over time. Exxon Mobil dropped its public arguments denying climate change in 2007.
The probe by the attorney general is one of several efforts being waged through the courts. Additionally, environmental and community groups are trying to prod action on climate change through the courts by seeking to prove that companies profiting from fossil fuel consumption over the past four decades were well aware of the harm their product was causing to the planet.
The Conservation Law Foundation sued Exxon in US District Court in Boston in September over its failure to prepare its gas terminal in Everett for the foreseeable effects of global warming, and the toxic spills that could result from heightened sea levels and storm surges on the surrounding communities.
Environmentalists, who had been outraged that Exxon Mobil responded to Healey’s investigation with a lawsuit, celebrated the ruling Wednesday.
“Today’s decision sends a strong signal that no corporation is above the law,” said Conservation Law Foundation president Bradley Campbell. “Exxon Mobil has spent decades deceiving the public and gambling the health and safety of communities across the state, and Maura Healey has not just the right but the responsibility to investigate the full extent of the company’s wrongdoing.”
Environmental groups were also trying to draw attention to their issue with the spotlight on Tillerson, who just stepped down from Exxon after working there for more than 40 years, the past 10 as CEO.
At Tillerson’s confirmation hearing Wednesday, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the November election, questioned him about the company’s history on climate change.
“I’m asking you whether those allegations about Exxon Mobil’s knowledge of climate science and decision to fund and promote a view contrary to its awareness of the science, whether those allegations are true or false,” Kaine said.
Tillerson demurred. “The question would have to be put to Exxon Mobil.”
That prompted Kaine to ask: “Do you lack knowledge to answer my questions or are you refusing to answer my question?”
Tillerson answered: “A little of both.”
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert