Julia Bevins, left, of Anchorage and Steve Jones of San Francisco wear polar bear costumes during a climate action rally on the Park Strip in Anchorage during President Obama's 2015 visit to the city. Alaska appears to be changing course on climate change, according to the Speaker of the House and one of the state's most prominent conservation scientists.

Julia Bevins, left, of Anchorage and Steve Jones of San Francisco wear polar bear costumes during a climate action rally on the Park Strip in Anchorage during President Obama's 2015 visit to the city. Alaska appears to be changing course on climate change, according to the Speaker of the House and one of the state's most prominent conservation scientists.

House speaker, noted conservationist agree: Alaska ‘flip flops’ on climate change

Rick Steiner and Mike Chenault agree on something.

In separate announcements this week, both figures said an action this week by Alaska’s new attorney general represents a significant shift in the state’s attitude toward Big Oil.

In a message dated Aug. 17, the Alaska Department of Law filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of several states who are alleging that ExxonMobil Corp. concealed research findings pertaining to global climate change.

In late 2015, New York’s attorney general attempted to subpoena Exxon to obtain its research and determine whether the company deliberately concealed knowledge of climate change. At the time, the move was compared to cigarette companies’ concealment of the health harm of smoking. The oil giant sued, calling the probe an abuse of power.

Various states have chimed in on different sides of the lawsuit, including Massachusetts, which launched its own investigation. In June, Alaska joined several oil-producing states in opposition to the probe by Massachusetts.

Exxon’s defensive lawsuit is seeking to put the case into federal court in Texas, instead of state court in Massachusetts.

Now, Alaska has signed a document opposing Exxon’s attempt to put the case into federal court.

“The characterization that this is a ‘shift in position’ is somewhat misleading,” said Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, by email.

As she explained the matter, former Alaska attorney general Craig Richards was opposing “the merits of the underlying investigation,” or the subject under investigation.

New attorney general Jahna Lindemuth is supporting the idea that the case is a state matter, not a federal one. State courts, not federal ones, typically hold jurisdiction over consumer protection lawsuits. Massachusetts and other states have said that’s exactly what this case is.

“This is simply about ensuring that an area that is largely regulated by the states, consumer protection, remains a state — not a federal — issue,” Mills said.

Neither Steiner, one of Alaska’s most prominent conservation scientists, nor Chenault, Alaska’s pro-development Republican Speaker of the House, agrees with that assertion.

“I think this represents a clear change in policy,” Steiner wrote by email.

He said he believes the state is reluctant to admit as much so it can avoid criticism from the oil companies. Despite a significant drop in oil prices, Alaska receives more than half its state revenue from taxes levied on oil production.

In a press release Wednesday, Chenault and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, called the state’s action a “flip flop.”

“Alaska should stick with its initial decision and not waste Alaskans’ money on this environmentalist-led oil company witch hunt,” Chenault said in a prepared statement. “We need to focus on how to get our own house in order before we go and tell someone else what to do with theirs.”

By phone, LeDoux said it’s clear that the state “was doing one thing and now it’s doing the opposite thing.”

She said she’s opposed to the state’s intervention in the case because it doesn’t have money to waste.

Mills, by email, said the state is not spending money on the case, simply filing a brief in support, but LeDoux said “what you use your manpower on is spending money.”

• Contact reporter James Brooks at 523-2258 or james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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