Fact Check: Did Kamala Harris Sue Exxon Over Climate Change?

The U.S. senator and former California attorney general made that claim during the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates’ Climate Crisis Town Hall.

Sen. Kamala Harris, shown at a 2019 event. Credit: Al Drago/Getty Images

Sen. Kamala Harris, shown at a 2019 event. Credit: Al Drago/Getty Images

While she was pitching herself as a tough former California prosecutor who would lead on the climate crisis and make polluters pay, Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris asserted Wednesday that she had sued the world's biggest private-sector oil company.

As California attorney general, Harris in 2016 joined an alliance of top state law enforcers who vowed to investigate whether ExxonMobil or any fossil fuel company broke the law by misleading the public—and, in particular, shareholders—over the risks of climate change. The coalition was announced after InsideClimate News reported on the history of Exxon's emerging understanding of climate change science in the 1970s and its subsequent efforts to challenge the scientific consensus.

New York filed such a lawsuit last October. But did Harris ever sue Exxon?

The answer appears to be no. No lawsuit was filed against Exxon while Harris was California attorney general from 2011 to 2017, the state Office of the Attorney General confirmed Thursday.

Her campaign spokesman took to Twitter to portray the controversy as an unfair quibble over whether Harris "investigated" or "sued" Exxon. But Harris clearly was attempting to convey that she had a record of taking law enforcement action against Big Oil over climate change, and that such litigation would be an integral part of her climate plan.

"This is what we did with the tobacco companies," she said on CNN's Climate Crisis Town Hall. "We sued them. We took them to court because you know what happens? People who profit from harmful behaviors, when you take away that money because you take them to court and sue them as I have done, it's extraordinary how they will change behaviors."

"Would you sue them?" asked CNN's Erin Burnett. "Sue ExxonMobil?"

"I have sued ExxonMobil," Harris shot back, provoking applause.

InsideClimate News could find no evidence that Harris had ever filed a lawsuit against Exxon, including while she was district attorney of San Francisco between 2004 and 2011.

Sher Edling, a San Francisco-based law firm spearheading civil litigation against Exxon on behalf of communities based on the company's past knowledge of climate risks, said it can't find any record of litigation by Harris involving Exxon. Columbia University's database of climate change litigation has no record of a suit. Even the pro-oil industry advocacy organization, Energy in Depth, said on its blog that neither Harris nor her successor ever filed suit against Exxon.

The San Francisco District Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In response to a query over the statement by InsideClimate News, Harris' campaign forwarded a link to an anonymously sourced 2016 Los Angeles Times report that Harris was reviewing what Exxon knew about global warming and what the company told investors.

Harris did not confirm the investigation at that time. Nor is there any indication Harris undertook an active investigation by issuing subpoenas, as did the attorneys general of New York, Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The New York and Massachusetts investigations came to light because of Exxon's aggressive legal countermoves against the attorneys general in those states; Exxon unsuccessfully sued them for a conspiracy to deprive the company of its First Amendment rights and silence its views on climate change.

Harris' campaign staff did not respond to a request to provide the complaints or the name of the court and case numbers for any public documents to verify the senator's statement that she has sued Exxon.

Harris' spokesman, Ian Sams, bristled at the questions being raised over Harris' statement. "Trump spent the morning potentially illegally teasing out jobs numbers and lying about a massive hurricane's trajectory, but sure, let's spend our time on whether, as Attorney General, Kamala 'sued' vs. 'investigated'  Exxon, he said Thursday on Twitter.

Harris has sued other fossil fuel companies, but not Exxon, and not over climate change. Just before leaving her position as California Attorney General to assume her Senate seat, Harris announced a $14 million settlement with BP and Atlantic Richfield over allegations that the companies improperly maintained underground gasoline storage tank laws.

The announcement also recapped litigation settlements with other oil companies, including Chevron and ConocoPhillips, back to 2011.

Harris was one of 17 attorneys general who signalled support for a fraud investigation of the company. She did not appear in person, as six other attorneys general did, but sent a representative to an announcement by the alliance, AGs United for Clean Power.

It was a long road to the lawsuit ultimately filed last fall by only one of the law enforcers—former New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood—a case that is scheduled to go to trial this fall.

Published Sept. 5, 2019

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