Pity Poor Exxon . . . . . . . . . . . Not!

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Last week, a number of environmental and civil rights groups launched petition drives aimed at encouraging Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate Exxon Mobil. The groups accuse the company of disregarding the results of its own scientists’ research and launching a systematic disinformation campaign to sow doubt about the existence of global warming.

This morning, in “The War Against Exxon Mobil,” Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson defended the oil company against being cast “as the scapegoat for global warming’s dilemmas.” According to Samuelson, environmentalists are engaged in a campaign to deprive the company of its first-amendment rights. “If you care about free speech,” he argues, “you should pay attention to the campaign now being waged against Exxon Mobil.”

. . . The advocates of a probe into Exxon Mobil are essentially proposing that the company be punished for expressing its opinions. These opinions may be smart or stupid, constructive or destructive, sensible or self-interested. Whatever, they deserve protection. An investigation would, at least, constitute a form of harassment that would warn other companies to be circumspect in airing their views.[1]

In fact, the probe’s advocates are not proposing — essentially or otherwise — that “the company be punished for expressing its opinions.” No doubt, the probe’s advocates would be delighted to hear the company’s actual opinions, because, as evidence uncovered by investigative reporters shows, if Exxon Mobil had expressed its actual opinions, it might have said something like: In our opinion, company profits are more important than scientific evidence; hence, regardless of the scientific evidence, in our opinion, the science isn’t settled; therefore, in our opinion, we should fund groups that will chant, like a mantra, “climate change is a hoax.”

No, the probe’s advocates aren’t attempting to infringe on the first-amendment rights of Exxon Mobil or any other entity. They simply want the oil company to be held accountable for reaping billions in profits while spending millions on a disinformation campaign that successfully delayed action on climate change for decades.

In the meantime, more and more carbon has been pumped into the atmosphere, making the associated problems harder and more expensive to confront. And would you like to take a guess who’s been slated to pick up the bill for the consequences of climate change? You, that’s who! Yes, tax payers — especially future tax payers — will be picking up the bill long after the Exxon-Mobil executives who established the disinformation policy are dead and gone and unavailable to be held accountable.

So three cheers for the groups that are encouraging the U.S. Attorney General to launch a federal investigation. They aren’t posing a danger to free speech, they’re merely attempting to recapture for the rest of us some of Exxon Mobil’s ill-gotten gains.

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[1] Samuelson, Robert, J. “The War Against Exxon Mobil.” Washington Post. November 9, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-war-against-exxon-mobil/2015/11/08/094ff978-84a6-11e5-8ba6-cec48b74b2a7_story.html?postshare=1791447078862248

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