Activists Step Up Long-Running Campaign to Hold Oil Industry Accountable for Climate Damages

Green groups are working behind the scenes to prod state investigators probing Exxon for climate fraud, while industry accuses them of conspiracy.

Seizing on recent developments, environmentalist have stepped up pressure on Exxon over climate change. Credit: John Duffy via flickr

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A four-year, coordinated strategy by environmental organizations to hold ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel corporations legally accountable for climate change denial has come to fruition, as state attorneys general have teamed up to launch investigations into possible climate fraud.

The advocacy efforts stretch back to at least 2012, when the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Climate Accountability Institute brought together about two dozen scientists, lawyers and legal scholars, historians, social scientists and public opinion experts for a two-day workshop in La Jolla, Calif., titled “Climate Accountability, Public Opinion, and Legal Strategies.” They discussed a strategy to fight industry in the courts, after years of concentrating on public relations and policy fights, and they sought to use “the lessons from tobacco-related education, laws, and litigation to address climate change,” according to a report on the 2012 workshop.  

There was “nearly unanimous agreement on the importance of legal actions,” the report said, with some participants stating, “pressure from the courts offers the best current hope for gaining the energy industry’s cooperation in converting to renewable energy.”

“It is possible,” the report concluded, “to see glimmers of an emerging consensus on a strategy that incorporates legal action [for document procurement and accountability] with a narrative that creates public outrage.”

Recent developments gave them something to seize on, and in January, the green groups met again in a strategy meeting. New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, had issued a subpoena to Exxon two months before seeking four decades of climate-related documents. The subpoena was spurred by investigations by InsideClimate News and later the Los Angeles Times revealing how Exxon conducted climate research in the 1970s before later questioning the role that carbon dioxide from fossil fuels plays in global warming.

Another meeting took place in March between two environmental advocatesone of whom attended the January strategy meetingand state attorneys general. According to newly released emails, that meeting wrapped up just before a coalition of 17 attorneys general announced they were teaming up to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for potential duplicity on climate. Exxon and industry groups cited the meet as evidence of a conspiracy.

The emails were obtained through public records requests by the pro-industry Energy & Environment Legal Institute and published on April 15. E&E Legal criticized the meeting as “secret” and said the AGs were “colluding” with the green groups. The group’s website says it seeks to “correct onerous federal and state governmental actions.”

One email shows that environmental attorney Matthew Pawa sought advice on March 30 from the New York attorney general’s office about how to respond to a journalist’s questions about the meeting. Lemuel Srolovic, assistant attorney general, asked Pawa “to not confirm” that he attended “or otherwise discuss the event.”

Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, also participated. Both he and Pawa played leading roles in the 2012 La Jolla workshop. Frumhoff helped organize the event and Pawa was a presenter.  

In response to the conspiracy accusations, the activists said their cooperation was not improper.

“I’m a scientist,” Frumhoff said. “I do research onand have been writing aboutthe question of contribution of emissions from fossil fuel companies to climate change, and their role in questions of their responsibilities. I was invited to brief the attorneys general that gathered on March 29 on my work, and that is what I did.”

Like-minded environmental groups had been working separately for more than a decade to show how the oil giant was spreading misinformation about climate change. In 2004, Greenpeace launched ExxonSecrets, which tracks the amount of money Exxon and its foundations have spent funding climate denial. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project published three reports in 2007 detailing Exxon’s campaign of doubt on climate change

“Things are happening at an incredible speed now,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), who attended the January strategy meeting. There are “overlapping groups of movements and groups of campaigns coming together because they share a common interest in bringing the truth to light.”

The momentum has prompted them to step up efforts to pressure more attorneys general to investigate, and sway public opinion using op-eds, social media, and  rope line questioning of presidential candidates at campaign stops. Environmental advocates delivered a petition with more than 350,000 signatures to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in November, seeking a federal probe of Exxon.

Activist Bill McKibben, Pawa and others put on a “mock trial” of Exxon for alleged “climate crimes” during the Paris climate talks in December.

Exxon didn’t respond to a request for comment. The company sued to block a subpoena issued last month by the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands seeking almost 40 years of documents on climate change. It called the demand for records a violation of its constitutional rights.

The environmentalists’ January meeting was hosted by the Rockefeller Family Fund, The Wall Street Journal first reported. (The Rockefeller Family Fund awarded ICN a grant of $25,000 for general support in July 2015.)

Those attending considered the significance of the ICN and LA Times reports on what Exxon research discovered about climate change decades ago, said Lee Wasserman, director and secretary of the fund.

Possible common goals the group was meeting to discuss included establishing “in the public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm,” according to a draft agenda for the meeting reported by the Journal and later published by The Washington Free Beacon. Other potential goals were to “delegitimize [Exxon] as a political actor,” “force officials to disassociate themselves from Exxon,” “drive divestment from Exxon” and “drive Exxon and climate into [the] center of [the] 2016 election cycle.”

Without naming anyone, Wasserman said the draft agenda reflected just one person’s suggestions. The email was written by Kenny Bruno, a longtime coordinator of environmental activist campaigns.

“That was in no way the purpose of the meeting,” Wasserman said. “People put out thoughts about what these revelations meant for the advocacy landscape now that it was clear that Exxon knew about climate science for 20 to 30 years.”

Earlier this month, CIEL  released documents showing the oil industry has been aware of carbon dioxide’s role in global warming since at least the 1960s.

Green groups are now encouraging more state attorneys general to launch full investigations of whether Exxon violated fraud statutes. In addition to New York and the Virgin Islands, the AGs of California and Massachusetts have confirmed they, too, have opened Exxon inquiries.

“We want them to confirm that they are doing everything within their power to bring Exxon and fossil fuel companies to justice,” said R.L. Miller, president of the advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote.