After Terrible Year for #ExxonKnew, Rockefeller-Funded Website Tries Spinning a Defense
InsideClimate News (ICN), the environmental group funded by green energy groups and the Rockefellers, recently published its recap of #ExxonKnew, a political campaign spearheaded by environmental activists and a handful of friendly state attorneys general. The activists – many of whom are funded by the same foundations that fund ICN – had a number of setbacks in 2016, although their allies at ICN glossed over them entirely.
Let’s take a moment to fill in the gaps in ICN’s reporting.
‘Unearthing’ What’s Already Public
Repeating a common claim they’ve made over the last year, ICN credited itself with initiating the #ExxonKnew campaign after its team “unearthed” some old Exxon memos and reports on climate change. This narrative ignores several inconvenient truths – namely, that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigation of Exxon began months before ICN published its stories (as ICN itself reported), and those “unearthed” documents had been publicly available in libraries and online for years. Indeed, much of Exxon’s climate research had even been published in peer-reviewed journals.
What’s more, ICN cherry-picked, ignored, and distorted the statements in those documents to make it appear as though Exxon had reached definitive conclusions on climate change several decades ago. EID produced a video that walks through the documents and shows exactly where ICN and the #ExxonKnew campaign got it wrong. In short, these claims have been thoroughly debunked.
Inflating Number of Exxon Investigations
ICN also claims a coalition of 17 state attorneys general vowed to “hold Exxon and the fossil fuel industry responsible for its role in climate change.” On this point, ICN is dead wrong. The 17 AGs that joined the “AGs United for Clean Power” only pledged to “explore working together” on climate change initiatives. That language was adopted at the request of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who said Schneiderman’s crusade made him “nervous” and asked the New York AG’s office to “dial that back one notch.”
Only three state AGs ever announced formal investigations of Exxon (Schneiderman, Massachusetts AG Maura Healey, and Claude Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands). Walker suffered a humiliating defeat in June when he was forced to withdraw his subpoena. In ICN’s coverage of Walker’s retreat, they quoted one sympathetic law professor who said Walker was “in over their head. They were going to get pounded and it’s good they are off the field.”
That’s accurate, but Walker’s case helped expose the broader motive behind the #ExxonKnew campaign: targeting individuals and groups who disagree with certain policies on climate change. Walker’s subpoena targeted free market groups and other advocates, proving that the case was never about “fraud.”
Meanwhile, Healey’s comments at a March 29 press conference announcing the AGs United for Clean Power coalition (alongside Al Gore) are now causing her a headache in court. “Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change should be – must be – held accountable,” Healey said, adding, “We can all see today the troubling disconnect between what Exxon knew, what industry folks knew, and what the company and industry chose to share with investors and with the American public.” A federal judge is now trying to determine whether she prejudged Exxon before launching her investigation. If the judge determines her investigation was biased against the company before it even began, he could decide to throw out her case.
Notably, 15 AGs signed on to a Common Interest Agreement in an attempt to keep their correspondence with environmental activist groups a secret. The AGs of Iowa and Delaware declined, with the Iowa AG’s office calling Schneiderman a “wild card” and the Delaware AG reversing his support within hours of being informed of the Vermont AG receiving a public records request regarding the investigation of Exxon.
Truth or Politics?
ICN adds that #ExxonKnew “has become a partisan political fight as much as a search for the truth about what Exxon knew and did about climate change.” The reality is that this has been a political battle from the beginning. Editorials labeled Schneiderman’s investigation a political “inquisition” and “witch hunt” within days of his announcement. Healey is currently using Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson’s nomination to serve as Secretary of State as her own political football as Schneiderman uses his investigation to solicit donations from wealthy environmental donors.
Even Douglas Gansler, the former Attorney General of Maryland, told the crowd at a Center for American Progress event that the whole thing is “politically motivated”:
“The idea that AGs are politically motivated is an old one and a real one. Yes, they’re politically motivated in the sense that they are part of the political process; they have to run for office, they have to do what their constituents ask for, the voters that put them in office ask for, and there is no bigger issue that they ought to be thinking about and working on than climate change. And yes, that’s politically motivated. It’s good politics.”
ICN is clinging to the notion that #ExxonKnew is still actually about what Exxon knew about climate change, when in fact that argument has been so thoroughly debunked that both Healey and Schneiderman have tried to switch the focus of their investigations. But even their new arguments have been heavily criticized by legal experts. In his eulogy for #ExxonKnew, SUNY professor Tristan Brown wrote:
“Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. presidential election should mean the end of the #ExxonKnew movement and government investigations into how it values its assets in the context of climate change.”
The ICN article quotes U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), who says, “I feel like [Exxon is] living in an alternative reality on the issue of climate change.” Exxon has acknowledged climate change for a decade and has supported a tax on carbon emissions since 2009. And while #ExxonKnew activists are saying such wild things like the company’s CEO “is literally leading us to an apocalypse,” most news outlets are reporting that Rex Tillerson will actually be the most progressive voice on climate change in President-Elect Trump’s Cabinet.
Bashing Their Allies’ Enemy
ICN also alleges that House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is investigating Schneiderman, Healey, and “non-governmental organizations Smith felt were sympathetic to the attorneys general.” Smith is a favorite target of environmental activist groups that trace their funding the same folks that fund InsideClimate News, so this isn’t really surprising. Still, lest there be any confusion: the organizations targeted by Smith’s committee are not simply sympathetic to the AGs – they are actively colluding with them.
The groups include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Rockefeller Family Fund, who have funded every step of the #ExxonKnew campaign; the Climate Accountability Institute and Union of Concerned Scientists, who have publicly admitted to working with the AGs to target Exxon; 350.org and Greenpeace, who attended a secret strategy session at the Rockefeller Family Fund offices with the stated goal of establishing “in the public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution” and to “delegitimize them as a political actor;” and Matt Pawa, who briefed the AGs with Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists ahead of their March 29 press conference. Pawa was later instructed by Schneiderman’s office to basically lie to the press about his involvement with the AGs.
Contending that all parties in this fight are guilty of forum-shopping, ICN notes that “Schneiderman has generally prevailed in New York courts, while Exxon has the upper hand in Texas courts.” The term “generally prevailed” is the safety net, though. A New York state judge recently ruled that Schneiderman had to comply with a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which had requested documents related to his agreements with the state AGs and green activists regarding their investigations of Exxon.
While ICN glossed over this detail, other news outlets saw what could be a fatal crack in Schneiderman’s armor. In an editorial titled, “The disclosure that could end Eric Schneiderman’s career,” the New York Post suggested, “If he does keep refusing to comply with the Freedom of Information Law, you have to think he’s worried about what those documents reveal.”
Also left unmentioned were the scores of legal experts and editorial boards from across the country who have denounced the #ExxonKnew campaign. Even Dennis Vacco, the former New York Attorney General who prosecuted the tobacco companies in the 1990s, has said, “I can tell you from experience that our fight against the tobacco industry has almost nothing in common with today’s campaign by several state attorneys general against ExxonMobil – despite what supporters of the effort would like you to believe.”
ICN doesn’t mention the Rockefellers’ role in bankrolling in the entire #ExxonKnew campaign – a serious oversight considering ICN is funded by both the Rockefeller Family Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. But they’re not alone – Steve Coll, the Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which produced its own series of anti-Exxon stories, has also failed to provide adequate disclosure of his extensive funding from the Rockefellers.
The ICN recap is a good piece of PR (from a group that has been called a “green PR” firm), and it comes after a rough year for the #ExxonKnew movement, though it’s likely a bit less celebratory than its supporters (and funders) had hoped for. The article appropriately coincides with a column from Holman Jenkins, Jr. in the Wall Street Journal, wherein he notes that we have reached a period where supposedly objective news outlets are unable “to stumble on truths that would be inconvenient to climate religion.”