Former NJ Official Looks to Settle Old Score with New Climate Lawsuit

When the Wall Street Journal broke the story on the closed-door meeting that took place at the Rockefeller Family Fund offices back in January — with the reported goal of that meeting to establish “in the public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution” — we learned that a number of prominent anti-energy activists were in attendance.

As EID reported at the time, founder Bill McKibben was there, and a guy named Kenny Bruno (who once declared on Twitter that he wanted to “drag [Exxon] into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”) also made an appearance. Matt Pawa was there too. He’s been in the news lately, mostly in connection with his role as one of the chief architects behind getting several Democratic state attorneys general to file RICO cases against energy producers. Pawa briefed that group prior to a big press conference it held back in March with Al Gore, and was told by staff from the New York attorney general’s office to keep that fact secret when asked by reporters.

But last week, we found out more about another familiar fellow who attended that Rockefeller strategy meeting. His name is Bradley Campbell, and he and his Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) held a press conference last week to announce its “intent” to sue Exxon, purportedly for something tangentially related to the operation of an oil transfer and storage station owned by the company. Here’s a video of the press event, at which people with scripts read from a podium.

For the uninitiated, this isn’t Mr. Campbell’s first rodeo when it comes to trying to extract money from Exxon. Back in 2002, when Mr. Campbell served as the commissioner of the New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection, he helped lead what respected law firm Reed Smith said at the time was an “over-aggressive and flawed … crusade” to drag companies back into court to re-open environmental suits that had long since been settled, purportedly to fund the clean-up of sites that had long since been remediated. To do the work – and to pay for it — he brought in big-name, contingency-fee lawyers from out of state. And you’ll never in a million years guess which company ended up being the primary target of that effort.

We can spend thousands of words running through all the interesting details of that particular case (yes, it was against Exxon), but what was especially striking about it was Mr. Campbell’s reliance on questionable contractors to do the damage reports that served as the basis for the penalties that were assessed.

In the case of Exxon, Mr. Campbell enlisted a firm out of Boulder, Colo. called Stratus Consulting to handle much of that work, and boy did it deliver. Stratus consultants never actually visited the sites in question, but based on their desktop research concluded Exxon should pay Mr. Campbell’s office a penalty of about $8.9 billion — for spills Stratus conceded it could neither identify nor date.

Stratus, for what it’s worth, has been in the news quite a bit over the past several years, mostly for the work it did to support an extortion campaign targeting Chevron in Ecuador. When the facts finally came to light about Stratus’s (possibly criminal) complicity in preparing bogus technical reports in that case, the firm was forced to publicly recant its work and apologize. Nonetheless, the company continues to be popular among activists, especially when a good, inflated damages assessment is needed to help apply some additional pressure on a defendant to settle.

Working for Mr. Campbell in New Jersey, the Stratus team did what it was hired to do: produce a report with astronomically, almost comically, high damage figures. But Status did its job maybe a bit too well: the numbers it produced were so outrageous, there was no realistic chance that Mr. Campbell was going to be able to secure the settlement he and his contingency-fee lawyer (a New Orleans-native named Allan Kanner) had hoped for.

Years of court battles ensued, and Mr. Campbell himself left the office in 2006 to start up his own solar company.  The firm, called Swan Creek Energy, specialized in providing what’s called “net-metered” power for its customers, taking advantage of policies that at the time allowed solar users to “sell” surplus power back into the grid, but often at rates well above market price.

Well, that particular business model worked well for a while – see the rise of big net-metering firms like SolarCity and SunEdison. But all that has come crashing down of late. SunEdison declared bankruptcy last month, and SolarCity reportedly isn’t far behind. Today, more than a dozen states (ones governed both by Republicans and Democrats) are now actively working to rein in the excesses and inequities of those policies.

Last year, word came down that the litigation initiated by Mr. Campbell against Exxon a decade earlier had reached its conclusion. Instead of paying the state $8.9 billion as Mr. Campbell and his consultants had requested, an agreement was struck for a fraction of that: $250 million. Although it wasn’t even clear how or why Exxon owed anything – it had already spent millions remediating these sites, and had committed millions more – Mr. Campbell immediately went back on the attack. Within days of the settlement, he placed an op-ed for The New York Times suggesting that the deal was a political pay-off, offering nothing in the way of actual evidence.  In response, a spokesman for the governor characterized Campbell’s attacks as “irresponsible, disingenuous and baldly political.”

Which brings us to the present day. Desperate to find a way in on this new action, and perhaps more than a little disappointed that his effort to shake down Exxon a decade ago didn’t produce the results for which he had hoped, Mr. Campbell is bringing the band back together for one more show.

Last week, he called a press conference in Boston to announce his intention to file suit against Exxon – once again, asking contingency-fee lawyer Allan Kanner, the guy who ran the show on the New Jersey case, to take the lead on this effort.  The notice-of-intent letter filed by Messrs. Campbell and Kanner appears to be based primarily on the accusation that Exxon hasn’t done enough to make an oil storage facility it owns in Boston sufficiently “climate ready.” If that seems like a pretty thin reed on which to hang a suit, maybe that’s because it is.

Just like with these other efforts being led by the Democratic state attorneys general, the Campbell/Kanner suit does not in any way represent an actual, legitimate legal challenge. No rational person actually believes that energy companies are violating RICO laws on the basis of their views on climate change.

What this is actually about is a subject in which members of Congress have begun to take interest. Also last week, the House Science Committee sent information request letters to more than two dozen state offices and environmental groups. At minimum, we’re about to find out if what’s good for the goose is also good for gander. And with some luck, maybe we’ll find out a whole lot more.


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