In response to a lawsuit by sixteen Democratic and one Independent attorneys general (Vermont's Bill Sorrell among them) claiming that Exxon Mobil committed "fraud" in regard to that company's non-alarmist position on climate change, a group of 13 Republican AGs made a salient counterpoint in an open letter to all Attorneys General: "If minimization is fraud, exaggeration is fraud." What's sauce for the goose could turn out to be sauce for the gander.
If Exxon and/or think tanks that question the alarmist talking points on climate change can be sued for making statements that minimize the burning of fossil fuel's influence on global temperatures or extreme weather events, then organizations that have raised money, sold products and services, or applied for government grants with claims such as, "Act now, or the polar ice caps will be gone by 2014!" can also be investigated and prosecuted.
This is a very dangerous trend, wherein elected officials are essentially criminalizing the thoughts and actions of their political opponents. It is also rife with some very ugly corporate cronyism.
As the Republican AGs point out, the name of their counterparts' coalition is "AGs United for Clean Power." AGs are supposed to act on behalf of all citizens of their states, and enforce the principle of equality under the law. They are not supposed to act an agent for one sector of the energy industry over another. This is not really a fraud investigation, but rather a group of government officials abusing their power to take down the business competitors and critics of a political ally. Or, as the letter diplomatically puts it, they have "taken the unusual step of aligning themselves with the competition of their investigative targets."
We saw this kind of intimidation on a smaller though no less chilling scale here in Vermont. Just this past winter Attorney General Sorrell launched an investigation into charges that anti-wind activist Annette Smith was practicing law without a license when she advised local citizens about how to fight unwanted wind turbines being placed in their communities. It turned out that the suit against Smith was sparked by Ritchie Berger, an attorney who represents David Blittersdorf of All Earth Renewables. Blittersdorf would no doubt love to see Smith go away, or at least shut up. The suit was dropped after considerable public outrage at the heavy-handed tactic, and, although Smith was not intimidated away, she did have to spend considerable time fighting the charge, which is time taken away from her cause.
Ironically, Sorrell himself is now being sued for withholding public records related to AGs United for Clean Power lawsuit, which is pretty much what he says Exxon did. If, as his accusers suggest, Sorrell has been colluding with others to use this lawsuit as primarily a way to go after and silence conservative voices, violating their First Amendment rights — "a legal conspiracy to harm the constitutional rights of others" — he could, in fact, be the one indicted for violating RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) laws.
The Republican AGs note in their letter that, "it has been asserted that 'fossil fuel companies' have funded non-profits who minimized the risks of climate change. Does anyone doubt that 'clean energy' companies have funded organizations who exaggerated the risks of climate change?" Or exaggerated the supposed benefits of particular climate change policies?
VPIRG's February 2015 fundraising appeal stating, "Keep Vermont Snowy," and warning: "Imagine a Vermont without snow. No skiing. No snowmen. No sledding. No ice skating . It's the very real future we face unless we act now to confront global warming," comes to mind. "Act now" means supporting a Carbon Tax, yet there is no evidence that passing a Carbon Tax in Vermont would, in fact, keep Vermont snowy or have any impact whatsoever on future temperatures. Is Attorney General Sorrell all over this flagrant, fraudulent exaggeration? No.
But, this not the way to resolve these debates, and government power should not ever be used as a political weapon. Lawsuits and counter lawsuits will not benefit public discourse or encourage people to work together. They will harden divisions and heighten the polarization that already grips the country, not to mention they will have a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights to free speech and press. Both sides should cease and desist.
As Luther Strange, the Alabama Attorney General, stated in a recent opinion piece, "By redefining political opposition as fraud, the AGs United for Clean Power have opened the door to oppression. It's time to slam that door shut and ensure that everyone, no matter what their political persuasion, can speak their mind." Hear, hear!
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.