In oral arguments Tuesday before a state court, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s chief counsel laid out the state’s case for trying to investigate ExxonMobil for allegedly hiding climate change from consumers. Under heavy questioning from a panel of judges, the AG’s representative repeatedly asserted that ExxonMobil should have included a warning about climate change on all of its advertising – including at the gas pump.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey believes that since ExxonMobil had studied the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, it should have included a warning in every advertisement it produced stating that the use of its products contributes to climate change. Here is exactly what Healey’s counsel said:
“If they’re doing sales and marketing in Massachusetts, and they know things that they should be telling people – either consumers or investors – that would be relevant to the consumers or investors’ decisions, then they’ve gotta make that part of their advertising. They can’t simply go around and say, ‘We’re selling you this terrific product,’ and keep to themselves what they know about the possible impacts of those products on global warming.” (emphasis added)
Even the panel of judges were incredulous:
“The franchisee has to put on its gas station, ‘You’re creating global warming by buying my gas?’”
Under a later line of questioning, Healey’s counsel admitted that the attorney general did indeed expect ExxonMobil to issue a warning to consumers every time they filled up their tanks, because doing so might convince people to take the bus or something:
“So Exxon has an obligation – and all of this is assuming that what we think may have happened did happen, and there was an understanding about the impact on climate change – that Exxon would have a responsibility both at the national level and at the local level to implement information to the consumers so that they could understand when they purchase a tank of gas that this is gonna have an impact on global warming and maybe they should be thinking about buying a more fuel-efficient car, maybe they should be thinking about public transportation…” (emphasis added)
Of course, ExxonMobil doesn’t have an obligation to do any of that. The AG is trying to connect this proposition to the surgeon general’s warning placed on cigarette packages and advertisements. But those are required by the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 and the Comprehensive Smoking Education Act of 1984. There is no law stating that companies must place climate change warnings on advertising or other marketing for fossil fuels.
Imagine what it would look like if the Massachusetts AG’s standard were applied to everything reliant on fossil fuels.
Car commercials would have a disclaimer warning that driving contributes to climate change. Every time you tweet – even if you used the #ExxonKnew hash tag – you would get a notification, “Tweeting contributes to climate change. Are you sure you want to tweet?” (Tweeting emits 10 metric tons of CO2 per day). Every light switch and outlet in your home would require a warning label, since the majority of U.S. electricity comes from coal and natural gas. On your flight home for the holidays, the flight attendants – in between explaining the security features of your aircraft – would treat you to a lovely lecture on the melting Arctic.
Heck, even Attorney General Healey’s preferred method of transportation would have a climate warning on it: Boston just welcomed 345 new city buses to its fleet, which run on compressed natural gas or are diesel-electric hybrids. Why weren’t city residents warned?
The oral arguments made Tuesday before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court were intended to help the panel of judges decide whether Attorney General Healey has jurisdiction over ExxonMobil. The company argued that it does not operate or own any assets in the state. The AG’s office believes that because several independent gas stations in Massachusetts license ExxonMobil’s branding, the company is under Healey’s jurisdiction.
The Massachusetts judges did not rule one way or the other on Tuesday, putting Healey’s investigation back on hold. However, Healey’s chief counsel managed to offer a small peek into the warped thinking that led the AG to launch her investigation.