#ExxonKnew Attempts to Reset Flailing Campaign With…a Billboard?

Public Citizen and a new project called the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) have launched a new campaign targeting oil and gas companies in the wake of recent hurricanes. The groups have put up two billboards in Houston asking when “climate polluters” will “pay their fair share” and directing people to visit WhoPaysForHarvey.com. But a peek behind the curtain reveals that this campaign is organized by the same key players behind the #ExxonKnew campaign and is just the latest attempt to reset their struggling effort to attack the oil and gas industry.

As a refresher, Public Citizen has been active in the #ExxonKnew campaign for nearly two years. Rob Weissman, Public Citizen’s president, attended a secret closed-door meeting in January 2016 at the offices of the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF), which has bankrolled the #ExxonKnew campaign. Activists at that meeting included Kert Davies, Matt Pawa, 350.org’s Bill McKibben, and Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) president Carroll Muffett, among others.

The purpose of the meeting was “to establish in public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution,” and “to delegitimize them as a political actor.” After a quick break for lunch, the group reconvened to ask:

“Does this group want to establish a rapid response and coordination structure to react to new research, revelations and legal developments as they happen? A higher level of coordination with a war room, joint social media, and coordinated organizing and media pushes?”

Nearly two years later, we’ve seen the degree to which these groups have actively coordinated with each other and their allies.

CCI launched last month as a project of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD). IGSD was founded by Durwood Zaelke, who was the co-founder and president of CIEL from 1989-2003. Richard Wiles is the director of what is now CCI and is also the publisher of a new climate liability website, Climate Liability News (CLN), which launched in July. CLN has paid particularly close attention to developments in the investigations of and lawsuits against ExxonMobil, devoting a unique page on its website to the issue. Kert Davies, who attended the January 2016 RFF meeting, is listed as a member of CLN’s board, alongside Wiles and Alyssa Johl, a former CIEL attorney.

Matt Pawa, a trial lawyer who attended the January 2016 RFF meeting and serves on the board of CIEL, recently spoke at a conference with Public Citizen’s Weissman. Pawa has chased big payouts from companies for their contributions to climate change for years and is currently leading a climate change lawsuit filed by San Francisco and Oakland against five oil and gas companies.

Following the RFF group’s plan to “establish a rapid response and coordination structure to react to new…developments,” Bill McKibben, a top promoter of the #ExxonKnew campaign, tweeted a photo of one of the Houston billboards as soon as they went up.

Adrian Shelley, the director of Public Citizen Texas, told the Houston Chronicle that the billboards and website are “just the beginning of a larger national campaign.” WhoPaysForIrma.com has already been registered, though that site has not yet launched.

And while the slick website at WhoPaysForHarvey.com features all of eight sentences blaming oil and gas companies for Hurricane Harvey, it does not link to additional information or resources and offers no way to help the victims of Harvey and no solutions to address climate change. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry pledged over $32.3 million to Harvey relief efforts. It remains to be seen how this new campaign’s billboards and barebones website will help address climate change.

What is clear is that these various efforts to attempt to bring climate litigation against oil and gas companies are being perpetrated by the same handful of activists who have been pursuing these companies for years. The goal isn’t to win the cases; it’s to generate publicity – a goal shared by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman with his investigation of ExxonMobil.

Activists are trying to create a public narrative that oil and gas companies deserve all of the blame for climate change, thereby shifting the blame from the individuals who rely on fossil fuels (including these activists) to the companies providing fossil fuels. The goal, as laid out in their memo nearly two years ago, is to “delegitimize them” and convince the public that oil and gas companies are corrupt. Or, as that memo’s author put it:

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