By Karen Savage
To prove its allegations that California communities are conspiring against it in a series of climate liability suits, Exxon asked the Texas Supreme Court to force officials from those communities to provide documents and testimony about the lawsuits.
In a petition filed Friday, Exxon asked the court whether the state has personal jurisdiction over the officials, who are from the cities and counties of San Francisco, Santa Cruz and San Mateo, the cities of Oakland, Imperial Beach, as well as Marin County. Attorney Matthew Pawa, who formerly represented some of the municipalities, is also named.
It is Exxon’s latest attempt to obtain information from Pawa and the California officials. The company alleges they are involved in a large-scale conspiracy to penalize the company for its “views” on climate change.
In the lawsuits, the municipalities allege the company has known for decades that their products overwhelmingly drive global warming, and instead of warning the public, engaged in long campaigns to cloud its understanding of the science. The communities are now grappling with costly climate impacts such as wildfires, extreme temperatures and sea level rise and are seeking compensation for related damages, as well as for infrastructure upgrades needed to protect their communities from future impacts.
Exxon, which first filed the discovery request in Jan. 2018, contends the suits are an attempt to “suppress Texas-based speech about climate and energy policies.” It wants the officials to turn over documents and submit to depositions that could be used as evidence in future legal action.
Tarrant County District Judge R.H.Wallace, Jr. initially allowed Exxon to proceed with discovery, ruling against the California municipal officials, who have argued that the Lone Star State does not have jurisdiction over them.
That ruling was reluctantly overturned by a state appellate court in June.
“The law simply does not permit us to agree with Exxon’s contention that the potential defendants have the purposeful contacts with our state needed to satisfy the minimum-contacts standard that binds us,” wrote a three-judge panel of the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Bonnie Sudderth urged the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider what is required in order for the state to have jurisdiction over defendants.
Exxon is now asking the high court to do just that.
“Review is necessary to safeguard Texas’s sovereign interest in adjudicating lawsuits that affect the speech of its citizens and a core component of its economy,” Exxon attorneys wrote in the petition.
Exxon further argues that municipal officials “attacked protected speech and associational activities in Texas” when they filed climate liability suits against the company.
The municipalities “seek to wrest Texas policy decisions from Texas citizens by diminishing the pocketbooks and stifling the speech of its industry,” Exxon’s attorneys told the court. “That is precisely the type of intentionally targeted conduct that gives rise to personal jurisdiction.”
In addition to the California suits, Exxon is a defendant in nearly all of the dozens of climate change-related lawsuits filed against fossil fuel companies by communities across the nation since 2017.
The oil giant made similar allegations of free speech violations in a lawsuit filed to stop investigations by the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general, who were digging into allegations that Exxon deceived the public about the risks posed to their climate by their products.
That case was emphatically dismissed in 2017 by U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni, who said Exxon’s claims were “implausible” and brought “on the basis of extremely thin allegations and speculative inferences.” Caproni called allegations by the company that the investigations were politically motivated a “wild stretch of logic.”
Both AGs later filed lawsuits against Exxon for fraud. A New York judge ruled last year that the state failed to prove its allegations. A suit filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is proceeding in state court.
The court is expected to decide whether it will accept the petition for review in the coming months.