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Scripps Oceanography Caught In Exxon Mobil Political Crossfire

A Republican congressman claims investigations into Exxon Mobil stem from a meeting held at Scripps in 2012. The meeting compared oil companies to the tobacco industry.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography has been swept up in a political fight between a Republican congressman and a state attorney general concerning whether Exxon Mobil misrepresented facts around the science of climate change.

Last week, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith sent a letter to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demanding email correspondence between his office and climate groups present at a 2012 meeting held on the Scripps campus in La Jolla.

“There was a lot of discussion comparing the oil companies, Exxon in particular, to the tobacco companies,” said meeting attendee Daniel Yankelovich, co-founder of the public policy research organization Public Agenda and founder of the Yankelovich Center at UC San Diego.

Photo credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The Martin Johnson House, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography venue seen in this undated photo, was the site for a 2012 meeting comparing oil companies with the tobacco industry.

Smith claimed that since that meeting, climate activists and state attorneys general have been collaborating to sue Exxon Mobil over its statements on climate science, in violation of the company's right to free speech.

Scientists have argued Exxon Mobil took a page out of the tobacco industry’s playbook, working to publicly question the science around climate change while privately conducting research linking fossil fuels with man-made global warming.

"I always had a feeling that unlike the tobacco companies, there was a good chance the oil companies would start being more responsible and serious,” said Yankelovich. "But I think they are still defensive.”

Last year, Schneiderman’s office opened an investigation into whether or not Exxon Mobil lied to its investors by suppressing information linking fossil fuels to climate change. Other state attorneys general have joined in the investigation.

Now, Smith — the chairman of the House Science Committee — has opened his own investigation into Schneiderman’s office.

The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet. But Smith claims Schneiderman is using subpoenas to improperly target the few scientists who question the mainstream consensus on climate change.

Smith said in a statement to KPBS:

These investigations, stemming from the 2012 San Diego meeting of environmental groups, are an attempt to intimidate and silence these scientists, which only furthers a partisan political agenda. The attorney general's actions are, in my opinion, a clear violation of First Amendment rights, which protect all Americans who seek to freely disseminate their views.

The oil and gas industry was the largest contributor to Smith’s 2014 reelection campaign, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Exxon Mobil’s political action committee itself contributed $10,000 that year.

The 2012 meeting was titled, "Establishing Accountability for Climate Change Damages: Lessons from Tobacco Control." Groups in attendance now swept up in Smith's investigation include the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Climate Accountability Institute.

The meeting was not an official Scripps event, but Scripps did provide the venue and Scripps professor Naomi Oreskes (now at Harvard University) helped organize the event.

In an email reacting to Smith’s investigation, Oreskes said, "It is the job of state attorneys to investigate if and when they believe laws have been broken, and that is precisely what they are doing."

"The premise of Chairman Smith’s letter is a farce," said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a press release. "We are unapologetic about our efforts to expose this deception, and we will not be intimidated by this tactic."


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