Vanity Fair’s Accidental Eulogy to #ExxonKnew

Vanity Fair has published a lengthy overview of the #ExxonKnew investigations ahead of the second anniversary of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issuing his first subpoena to ExxonMobil. The article comes at an awkward time for the #ExxonKnew campaign, as the investigations have yet to uncover any evidence of fraud and the campaign in support of the investigations has largely fizzled out; despite concerted efforts to “delegitimize” the company and “drown it in the bathtub,” ExxonMobil’s financial performance has remained unaffected.

Strangely, this article adds nothing new to our understanding of the investigations of ExxonMobil. Vanity Fair somehow missed all the developments in the #ExxonKnew campaign, so this story amounts to little more than a book report summarizing events that were reported on months or even years ago.

Even the article’s title betrays that they missed the bus on this story: “The Investigation That Rex Tillerson Doesn’t Want You to Know About.” The only reason Vanity Fair assumes people may not already know about the investigation is because the #ExxonKnew campaign has completely failed to create a groundswell, despite widespread sympathetic coverage in papers across the country, most prominently in numerous articles over the last two years in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Steven Colbert even devoted a segment of “The Late Show” to it.

Because Vanity Fair arrived late to this party, it spends roughly half of the article bringing readers up to speed on the various charges against ExxonMobil that were long ago put to rest. “Based on the documents received to date,” the article says, “Schneiderman seems to be of the view that Exxon had far more insight into the damaging effects on the climate of burning fossil fuels than it has ever admitted, and yet decided to continue to search for, refine, and sell billions of barrels of oil nonetheless.”

The magazine seems to be operating under the illusion that oil and gas is some dangerous luxury good instead of a valuable natural resource that literally powers the world economy. And while Schneiderman and Vanity Fair may have only recently stumbled upon the evidence of climate change, the public was aware of the issue decades ago. TIME reported on global warming in 1956 and Bell Labs published an hour-long film on the topic in 1958. ExxonMobil’s detractors even admit that Exxon’s climate research closely tracked the scientific consensus for decades.

But the article later admits that even Schneiderman has moved on from this tired narrative and is currently pursuing his third line of reasoning in his investigation of ExxonMobil. New York’s powerful Martin Act gives him the power to fish through millions of the company’s documents (he’s gone through 3 million already) without any restraint or oversight. In much the same way that an infinite number of monkeys, given typewriters and sufficient time, will eventually produce Hamlet, Schneiderman hopes to eventually find evidence that ExxonMobil is guilty of something – anything.

While Schneiderman spends a lot of time and taxpayer funds on his crusade against ExxonMobil, he’s ignoring real claims from real investors in his state that SolarCity, a renewable energy company, may have lied to its investors. Former New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco published an op-ed in the Buffalo News Friday:

“Schneiderman’s dogged pursuit of Exxon Mobil is in stark contrast to his reaction to claims of investor deception by an alternative energy company in which the state has made a huge financial investment. That company is SolarCity, a publicly traded company that last year became a part of Tesla Motors. Schneiderman has subpoenaed 3 million pages of documents from Exxon Mobil and has yet to make a valid case against the company. On the other hand, Schneiderman has ignored troubling signs at SolarCity.

“One would think that the state’s top law enforcement official would be concerned about claims of misrepresentations to Wall Street investors by SolarCity simply based on the fact that the state of New York paid $750 million for the construction of a huge production facility in Buffalo predicated on SolarCity’s promise of delivering 5,000 jobs.

“Because the market for residential solar panels is shrinking, the company now projects at best 500 jobs, a staggering investment of taxpayer dollars for so little return. The bait and switch regarding job projections in Buffalo alone should attract Schneiderman’s attention, to say nothing of claims about deceiving investors or consumers.”

Back in Vanity Fair, the article incorrectly writes that “Schneiderman received some significant independent support for his view that ExxonMobil may have committed fraud,” referencing the completely debunked paper by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes. That paper omitted relevant evidence in order to push the narrative peddled by the #ExxonKnew campaign. The authors are anything but independent; Oreskes helped organize the genesis of the #ExxonKnew campaign and had previously briefed Schneiderman and other AGs on their efforts, and her paper was funded by the same wealthy anti-fossil fuel donors who convinced Schneiderman to investigate ExxonMobil in the first place.

Despite the sustained efforts of two state attorneys general, dozens of activist groups, and a handful of extremely wealthy anti-fossil fuel donors, the campaign to force oil and gas companies to stop producing oil and gas has been a huge disappointment. Years after activists drew up plans for what eventually became the #ExxonKnew campaign, they have nothing to show for all of the money they’ve spent complaining about climate change while doing nothing to solve it.

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle reported last week that “Exxon Mobil posted a 50 percent jump in profits in the third quarter amid rising energy prices — even after absorbing a $160 million blow from Hurricane Harvey, which crippled some of its Gulf Coast facilities.” The company is spending some of that money on programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It has initiated a plan to cut methane emissions from its operations in the absence of government regulation, has pioneered groundbreaking research into algae-based advanced biofuels, and fuel cells that capture 90 percent of carbon emissions and use it to generate additional power.

Though Vanity Fair bravely attempted to make a two-year-old story about a forgotten campaign relevant by pegging it to recent drama between President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson, it adds nothing new to the discussion. Expect to see more of this as the second anniversary of Schneiderman’s subpoena approaches (Nov 4) – big, showy pieces devoid of actual content that serve as belated eulogies to the long-dead #ExxonKnew campaign. Maybe it’s time for the activists to recognize that the public isn’t buying their narrative, probably because it’s ludicrous.

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