Exxon asks U.S. court to throw out subpoena in climate change inquiry

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp asked a federal court on Wednesday to throw out a subpoena that would force the oil company to hand over decades of documents as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into whether it misled investors about climate change risks.

A sign is seen at the entrance of the Exxonmobil Port Allen Lubricants Plant in Port Allen, Louisiana, November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Lee Celano

In its filing in a U.S. district court, Exxon said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey overreached with her April subpoena and that it violated constitutional amendments on free speech, unreasonable search and seizure and equal protection.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said it was reviewing the motion.

The move by the world’s largest publicly traded oil company is the latest in its high-stakes battle with a coalition of state attorneys general who said in March they would go after Exxon and try to force Congress to tackle climate change.

Exxon also pushed back against a raft of shareholder proposals last month asking it to show how it will react to the Paris agreement among 195 governments that aims to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) by curbing carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

The subpoena from Healey comes amid claims by prosecutors that Exxon executives contradicted papers published by company scientists about the threats of climate change. The subpoena also seeks any Exxon communications with free-market business groups that doubt the efficacy of clamping down on emissions or climate science itself.

Exxon said in its filing the subpoena seeks documents outside of the statute of limitations and that activist groups encouraged opening inquiries.

“The great irony here is that we’ve acknowledged the risks of climate change for more than a decade, have supported a carbon tax as the better policy option and spent more than $7 billion on research and technologies to reduce emissions,” said Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers. “It should make people question what this is really all about.”

The attorneys general have based their inquiries on whether Exxon’s alleged soft-pedaling of climate risks or carbon regulation amounted to securities fraud.

In the past, current or former Exxon chief executives have said climate models are not entirely perfect, that curbing emissions could condemn the world’s poor to darkness, and that humans may need to adapt to changing weather and rising sea levels.

At a seminar in May on climate change law, Columbia Law School professor Merritt B. Fox said Exxon’s comments might not be material for investors.

That is because investors get information on climate change from many sources and Exxon would probably not be able to alter the “total mix” of publicly available information.

“The market was well supplied with information about climate change from a variety of sources,” said Fox, who acknowledged the importance of climate change but expressed skepticism about the legal strategy of prosecutors.

On Monday, five Republican congressmen told U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a letter the states’ inquiries were wrongly treating a policy issue as a law enforcement matter.

The case is 4:16-cv-00469-A in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth division.

Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Tom Brown and Meredith Mazzilli