The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank and one of the fossil fuel industry's most steadfast allies, disclosed on Thursday that the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands is demanding to see records of the group's donors and activities involving climate policy.
The subpoena represents a broadening of a multifaceted legal inquiry into whether fossil fuel companies broke any laws as they sought for decades to undermine the scientific consensus and head off forceful action to address the climate crisis.
For the first time, the investigation now appears to touch on the actions of third parties supported by the industry—and perhaps into their joint lobbying actions.
The island territory is just one of several jurisdictions now looking into the actions of ExxonMobil Corporation and other fossil fuel companies. The investigations, first announced by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, are thought to be in their early stages, and the investigators have offered few details of their scope.
Turning the spotlight on CEI is an assertive tactic from a surprising quarter. The Virgin Islands, while it may not have the legal muscle of New York with its powerful securities and consumer laws, is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
CEI said the subpoena from Attorney General Claude E. Walker "attempts to unearth a decade of the organization's materials and work on climate change policy."
"The subpoena requests a decade's worth of communications, emails, statements, drafts, and other documents regarding CEI's work on climate change and energy policy, including private donor information," the institute said. "It demands that CEI produce these materials from 20 years ago, from 1997-2007, by April 30, 2016."
"This is the latest effort in an intimidation campaign to criminalize speech and research on the climate debate, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former Vice President Al Gore," the institute said.
Schneiderman's subpoena of Exxon last year sparked an expanding inquiry by several Democratic attorneys general. A group of them held a press conference along with Gore last week to describe their coordinated actions on climate change, including the inquiries as well as support for the Obama administration's climate agenda. The attorneys general of Massachusetts and California are also investigating Exxon or other fossil fuel interests.
The investigations began after InsideClimate News, and later the Los Angeles Times, as well as other journalists reported on the history of Exxon's emerging understanding of climate change science in the 1970s and its subsequent efforts to undermine the scientific consensus, in part by financing research organizations including CEI.
CEI's general counsel, Sam Kazman, said it was "an affront to our First Amendment rights of free speech and association for Attorney General Walker to bring such intimidating demands against a nonprofit group. If Walker and his allies succeed, the real victims will be all Americans, whose access to affordable energy will be hit by one costly regulation after another, while scientific and policy debates are wiped out one subpoena at a time."
The inquiry's timeframe covers a crucial period beginning in 2000 and 2001, at the start of the Bush-Cheney administration, when lobbyists from ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies were pressing the new administration to reverse Clinton-Gore policies on global warming, reject the Kyoto Protocol and overhaul government research programs into climate change.
CEI was deeply involved in this campaign, according to multiple sources, including a detailed expose by a whistleblower named Rick Piltz.
For example, CEI filed a lawsuit against both the outgoing Clinton and the incoming Bush administrations, aimed at preventing a significant review of climate science, the 2000 National Climate Assessment, from forming the basis of federal policies and international negotiations. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the CEI had made its point with the Bush administration, which continued to resist the scientific consensus endorsed by the previous administration.
At the time the Bush administration was rewriting federal climate studies, a task carried out by a former oil company lobbyist who moved into the Council on Environmental Quality under Bush, and then went to work for Exxon when his role was publicly disclosed.
Much of the White House's engagement with the energy lobby during the early Bush-Cheney years still remains undisclosed. The administration refused to publish all its communications with the industry during its first year in office, when Vice President Dick Cheney ran an energy policy task force that consulted heavily with the industry behind closed doors.
The Virgin Islands subpoena suggests one way that some new details might be brought to light.
CEI is one of several organizations that have been repeatedly named over the years by those who have criticized Exxon and other fossil fuel companies for financing the climate denial work of third parties. After the Royal Society of the United Kingdom castigated Exxon in 2006 for giving money to groups misrepresenting climate science, Exxon said it had stopped financing the CEI.
In his remarks at last week's press conference, Walker said the fossil fuel investigation "is not an environmental issue as much as it is about survival. We try as attorneys general to build a safe community for all. But what good is that if, annually, everything is destroyed.
"It could be David versus Goliath—the Virgin Islands against a huge corporation," he said. "But we will not stop until we get to the bottom of this and make it clear to our residents as well as the American people that we have to do something transformational."