#ExxonKnew: Two Years of Harassment, Zero Legal Charges

This weekend marked two years since New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced his official investigation into whether ExxonMobil misled investors and the public about the impacts of climate change.  Despite several years and significant resources being committed to the investigation, as well as millions of documents turned over by ExxonMobil, Schneiderman has yet to bring forward any formal charges–making it clear that this investigation has more to do with politics than any presumed “fraud” that Schneiderman and his environmental allies have claimed.

The true origins of the #ExxonKnew campaign began back in 2012 during a now-infamous meeting in La Jolla, Calif., between Rockefeller-funded groups and activists who plotted ways to draw parallels between Big Oil and Big Tobacco. The key was to use racketeering laws against energy companies and to recruit sympathetic attorneys general to help with the investigation.  Involvement of attorneys general would prove to be integral in the strategy, as activists wanted to use discovery to obtain and publicize documents that could be used to turn public opinion against these companies.

Fast forward to the Summer and Fall of 2015 when reports alleging that ExxonMobil hid climate change research from the public began to appear in InsideClimate News (ICN) and later the Los Angeles Times.  Coincidentally, it was disclosed that the wealthy Rockefellers are major sponsors of ICN and commissioned the series that appeared in the LA Times via funding of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship.  Interestingly, the LA Times did not disclose the funders of the fellowship until after outlets like Energy In Depth pointed out the omission.  Even the Columbia Journalism Energy and Environment Fellowship page did not originally disclose its sponsors when it first published the series.

Though it’s been two years since the official subpoenas were issued, we know that Schneiderman and his team were looking into ExxonMobil more than a year before the November 2015 announcement.  FOIA’d documents have also revealed the collusion and close coordination between the New York Attorney General’s Office and activist groups.  Earlier this year, the New York Post reported that the Rockefellers and the New York Attorney General’s office were discussing the #ExxonKnew campaign months before either the ICN or LA Times pieces were published, even though those reports were initially credited for inspiring the investigation.

Then, in January of 2016, #ExxonKnew funders met to coordinate with the groups perpetuating the campaign at the Rockefeller Family Fund headquarters in New York.  If their intentions weren’t made apparent from the get-go, a leaked memo from that meeting outlined the goals of the campaign, including their self-described attempt to “delegitimize” Exxon and to “drive divestment” of the company:

This January 2016 meeting included many of the same attendees from the 2012 La Jolla conference such as attorneys Matt Pawa and Sharon Eubanks, Carroll Muffett, and representatives from Greenpeace.

In a show of force shortly after the meeting at Rockefeller headquarters, Eric Schneiderman, flanked by Al Gore and more than a dozen other state attorneys general announced in a press conference that Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands would be pursuing their own investigations of ExxonMobil.  Though many other Democratic attorneys general joined in on the photo-op, none of the others actually announced they would be joining in on the investigations.

Unsurprisingly, Rockefeller-funded activists were again behind the March 29th press conference.  Reuters reported on FOIA’d emails that showed both Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists and activist Lawyer Matt Pawa had secretly briefed the attorneys general ahead of the presser.  We say secretly because emails later showed an attempt to cover up their involvement with the AGs.  The day after the Al Gore press conference, Pawa emailed Lem Srolovic of the New York Attorney General’s office explaining that “a WSJ reporter wants to talk to me. I may not even talk to her at all but if I do I obviously will have no comment on anything discussed at the meeting.” Pawa then asked, “What should I say if she asks if I attended? No comment? Let me know.” Srolovic responded that Pawa should stonewall the press.

“My ask is if you speak to the reporter,” Srolovic wrote, “to not confirm that you attended or otherwise discuss the event.”

Both Frumhoff and Pawa were part of the La Jolla conference in 2012.

Not long after the press conference did things start to unravel for the #ExxonKnew campaign.  Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker—one of the few who was actually willing to move forward with an investigation—was forced to withdraw his subpoena relating to the case.  Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey were hit by a barrage of editorials criticizing their campaigns against ExxonMobil, characterizing their actions as an attempt to “stamp out all disagreement,” and voicing concerns about the precedent of pursuing “criminal penalties over those involved in a scientific debate.” Bloomberg News called Schneiderman’s investigation a “dangerous arrogation of power,” while the Boston Herald called Healey’s actions a “foolish effort to basically try to regulate speech.”

Two years later, the campaign has effectively faded from the public’s collective view without much to show for it.

EID crafted a new infographic to display how fruitless this investigation has been, which can be viewed here.

In sum, Schneiderman’s investigation has produced:

  • 3 million documents (when stacked, that would roughly amount to the height of the Chrysler building in New York.)
  • 4 different legal theories and 4 dead ends.  Schneiderman and his team have continued to change up their justifications for why they are continuing to investigate Exxon, since each of the previous legal threads have come up empty.
  • An unknown amount of taxpayer dollars committed to the investigation as the citizens of New York continue to bankroll this political crusade against Exxon.
  • Which has all amounted to…zero charges.

Continue Reading: Energy In Depth

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