Understanding the #ExxonKnew controversy

Funders of the “#ExxonKnew” campaign have placed “pay to play” news stories, released flawed academic reports and coordinated with politicians to launch investigations.

Article Sept. 6, 2018

In this article

Understanding the #ExxonKnew controversy

What is #ExxonKnew?

#ExxonKnew is an orchestrated campaign that seeks to delegitimize ExxonMobil and misinterpret our climate change position and research. For the past several years, activist organizations have sought to punish ExxonMobil for voicing its opinion on climate policy, even though ExxonMobil supports policies to limit climate change.

What organizations were involved?

The #ExxonKnew campaign is the outgrowth of a plan devised by environmental activists and class-action lawyers at a conference in La Jolla, California in 2012, as activists themselves confirmed in The New York Times. The Climate Accountability Institute (CAI) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) held this workshop to brainstorm how they could use litigation to gain access to internal energy industry documents on climate change, in hopes of creating scandal that would force a settlement similar in scope to the one reached with Big Tobacco. They put their strategy into a report called, “Establishing Accountability for Climate Change Damages: Lessons from Tobacco Control.”

How was the campaign funded?

The #ExxonKnew campaign is extremely well-funded and includes paid media coverage, legal support, activist groups, and academic research. Foundations providing financial support for the campaign include: Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Family Fund, Rockefeller Philanthropy, Open Society Foundations, Energy Foundation, V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

What was the outcome?

In 2015, environmental activists and class-action lawyers succeeded in securing an investigation of ExxonMobil by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, as originally envisioned in the La Jolla report. The investigation was widely founded on claims that scientists and researchers from ExxonMobil knew that man-made emissions caused global climate change in the 1970s and 1980s, but that the company kept those findings secret. Contrary to their claims, ExxonMobil's understanding of climate change has tracked the scientific consensus on climate change, and its research on the issue has been published in publicly available peer-reviewed journals.

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While those involved in the #ExxonKnew campaign have tried to claim their effort is based on investigative reporting by InsideClimate News (ICN) and the Columbia School of Journalism (via the Los Angeles Times), those stories were bought and paid for by many of the organizations listed above.

ExxonMobil’s continuous action on climate change

ExxonMobil continues to take action through research into technological innovation and by participating in constructive dialogue on policy options. We have pioneered research in advanced carbon capture and storagecogenerationmethane emissions reduction and algae-based biofuels, all with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. ExxonMobil supports a revenue-neutral tax on carbon and we urged the United States to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement. These actions demonstrate our commitment to reducing the risks of climate change. 

Timeline of #ExxonKnew

This coordinated campaign dates back to a 2012 meeting of environmental activists and class-action lawyers in La Jolla, CA.

2012

June 14-15, 2012: Rockefeller-funded organizations hold conference in La Jolla, California to brainstorm how they could use racketeering laws against ExxonMobil.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI) organize a conference for activists such as Naomi Oreskes (author of Merchants of Doubt), Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists and attorney Matt Pawa, who served on the board of CAI.

June

2015

July 31, 2015: Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) starts working with Democratic Attorneys General

As Frumhoff says in a July 31, 2015 email, “we’re also in the process of exploring other state-based approaches to holding fossil fuel companies legally accountable – we think there’ll likely be a strong basis for encouraging state (e.g. AG) action forward, and in that context, opportunities for climate scientists to weigh in.”

July
Nov. 4, 2015: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announces subpoena of ExxonMobil.

InsideClimate News reports that this announcement followed a “year-long probe” by the attorney general’s office.

 

November 2015: Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica emails Maryland Attorney General’s office

Pica emails Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office, offering to brief the attorney general on "the potential consumer related complaints and other authorities re: ExxonMobil." Just days after the meeting, Frosh announces he is considering an investigation into ExxonMobil.

 

November
Oct. 9, 2015: The Columbia School of Journalism follows up with its first ExxonMobil article in the LA Times

The LA Times story did not initially disclose that the Columbia School of Journalism is funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). Likewise, the website of the Columbia Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship did not originally disclose its Rockefeller funding.

 

Oct. 12, 2015: Rockefeller-funded Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies releases report suggesting ExxonMobil funds climate denial

The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies produced a report suggesting that “corporate funding” to “climate counter movement” institutions is responsible for skepticism about climate science. The report was funded by the Rockefellers and other groups bankrolling the #ExxonKnew campaign.

October
Sept. 16, 2015: InsideClimate News and Columbia School of Journalism publish #ExxonKnew series; Columbia fails to disclose Rockefeller funding

InsideClimate News publishes the first article in its #ExxonKnew series.

September

2016

April 13, 2016: Attorneys General sign Common Interest Agreement to keep investigations secret

New emails confirm that Gregory Schultz of the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office signed on to a Common Interest Agreement that was distributed to all the attorneys general offices involved by the New York Attorney General’s office.

 

April 21, 2016: Emails show the Delaware Attorney General pulled out of common interest agreement

Emails released by Energy & Environmental Legal Institute (E&E Legal) show that just a few weeks after Delaware Attorney General Matthew Denn (D) agreed to sign on to the Common Interest Agreement – which would keep their proceedings on the ExxonMobil investigations secret – he suddenly pulled out, telling the other attorneys general that he would no longer be participating.

April
Dec. 2, 2016: Rockefellers admit to funding #ExxonKnew campaign on national TV

The Rockefeller family appeared CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and owned up to the fact that they specifically paid the Columbia School of Journalism and InsideClimate News to write stories about ExxonMobil.

 

Dec. 22, 2016: Rockefellers forced to admit they directly lobbied Schneiderman to launch an ExxonMobil investigation

In a column published by the New York Review of Books, David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund admit: “It is up to government officials, not public interest advocates, to determine whether ExxonMobil’s conduct has violated any state or federal laws within the relevant statutes of limitations. Recognizing this, the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF) informed state attorneys general of our concern that ExxonMobil seemed to have failed to disclose to investors the business risks of climate change. We were particularly encouraged by Schneiderman’s interest in this matter, because New York’s Martin Act is arguably the most powerful tool in the nation for investigating possible schemes to defraud.” 

December
Jan. 8, 2016: #ExxonKnew activists meet behind closed doors at the Rockefeller Family Fund

leaked memo reveals that a coalition of activists including Bill McKibben of 350.org and attorney Matt Pawa gathered for a secret, closed-door meeting at the Rockefeller Family Fund offices. According to the memo, the coalition’s goals were to establish “in the public’s mind that ExxonMobil is a corrupt institution.”

January
July 13, 2016: House Science Chairman Lamar Smith subpoenas New York and Massachusetts attorneys general and eight activist groups in relation to their work on the #ExxonKnew campaign

Chairman Smith explains in the press release, “the Committee has a responsibility to protect First Amendment rights of companies, academic institutions, scientists, and nonprofit organizations. That is why the Committee is obligated to ask for information from the attorneys general and others.”

July
June 15, 2016: Thirteen state attorneys general call ExxonMobil investigation "a grave mistake"

The attorneys general of thirteen states send a letter to the attorneys general launching climate investigations warning that their efforts raise “substantial First Amendment concerns.” They ask the attorneys general to "stop policing viewpoints." 

 

June 22, 2016: Congressional Progressive Caucus holds #ExxonKnew forum on Capitol Hill

The Congressional Progressive Caucus holds a forum, which includes key #ExxonKnew activists. Kathy Mulvey of the Union of Concerned Scientists admits, “Yes, UCS has also been involved in providing information to attorneys general who are moving into the issue on whether these companies violated any state laws in providing this information to shareholders and the public…our chief scientist Peter Frumhoff who’s actually here with me as well and he has briefed a number of the AGs…”

 

June 29, 2016: Virgin Islands Attorney General withdraws subpoena of ExxonMobil

This withdrawal comes as legal experts across the country criticized the #ExxonKnew campaign for being legally unsound. For instance, Harvey Silverglate of the ACLU says the ExxonMobil investigation is “pure harassment.” Columbia Law Professor Merritt B. Fox notes that the investigations are “unlikely” to “be a winner.”

June
March 10, 2016: Schneiderman contacts Tom Steyer about ExxonMobil investigation and funding for gubernatorial race

As the New York Post reported, “In March 2016, four months after announcing the Exxon probe, the Democratic AG tried to arrange a phone meeting with hedge-fund mogul and environmental activist Tom Steyer. 'Eric Schneiderman would like to have a call with Tom regarding support for his race for governor. . . regarding Exxon case',” reads the March 10 email. 

 

March 15, 2016: Virgin Islands Attorney General subpoenas ExxonMobil and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, uses law firm linked to #ExxonKnew activists

The subpoenas served by Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker were issued through a Washington, D.C. law firm, Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, where Matt Pawa used to work.

 

March 24, 2016: Rockefellers admit to funding #ExxonKnew campaign

Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund told Reuters that funding the #ExxonKnew campaign is part of “our push to drive better public understanding and better climate policy.”

 

March 28, 2016: Attorneys General draft common interest agreement to avoid transparency with the public

In an email to Lem Srolovic with the New York Attorney General’s office, Vermont Assistant Attorney General Scott Kline expresses concerns about sharing documents related to the meeting, as they could be revealed to the public via a records request. Kline says “our office is okay with refusing to disclose covered documents.” The New York Attorney General’s office then requests a “Common Interest Agreement” be signed to avoid having the public find out about their meetings. 

 

March 29, 2016: #ExxonKnew activists brief attorneys general ahead of press conference with Al Gore

Reuters reports on emails between the offices of the state attorneys general, which reveal that Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Matt Pawa, an attorney then on the board of the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI), briefed the attorneys general ahead of their March 29 press conference with Al Gore. Later Frumhoff is forced to admit his attendance: “I was invited to brief the attorneys general that gathered on March 29 on my work, and that is what I did.”

 

March 30, 2016: Attorneys General offices tell activist not to tell the press about their collusion

Matt Pawa sends an email to Lem Srolovic with the New York Attorney General’s office, as well as Scott Kline in the Vermont 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 asks, “What should I say if she asks if I attended? No comment? Let me know.” Srolovic responds that Pawa should effectively stonewall the WSJ reporter. “My ask is if you speak to the reporter,” Srolovic writes, “to not confirm that you attended or otherwise discuss the event.”

March
May 20, 2016: Virgin Islands Attorney General withdraws its subpoena of the Competitive Enterprise Institute

The withdrawal comes after editorial boards across the country strongly push back on the #ExxonKnew campaign. For instance, the Financial Times say, “the legal basis for these actions seems flimsy…Beyond that, the implications of the investigations for free speech on public policy issues are alarming.”

May
Nov. 17, 2016: Federal judge adds Schneiderman to discovery order

Judge Ed Kinkeade ruled that a standing discovery order – which was issued to determine if Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was engaging in a “bad faith” pursuit of ExxonMobil – could be amended to include New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has been spearheading the entire #ExxonKnew effort. 

November
Oct. 13, 2016: Federal judge issues discovery order to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey

Federal judge Ed Kinkeade issued a discovery order against Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to determine whether “bias or prejudgment” influenced her decision to initiate a “bad faith” investigation into ExxonMobil, just days after she appeared before news cameras with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Al Gore and other Democratic state attorneys general in New York.

October

2017

April 6, 2017: #ExxonKnew campaign claims global warming caused the Exxon Valdez spill

This was yet another article written by graduate students at the Rockefeller-funded Columbia Journalism School, which was published in the Los Angeles Times. The article claims that ExxonMobil had evidence that the Columbia Glacier was calving due to climate change, but allowed one of its tankers to put itself in the way of the icebergs anyway.

April
Aug. 10, 2017: Vermont Judge orders Vermont Attorney General’s office to disclose all email communications with Schneiderman’s office – including Gmail correspondence

Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout ordered the release of records between the attorneys general of New York and Vermont, specifically any discussions of sharing documents with “outside advisors” pursuant to a secrecy pact. She also granted access to Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s private emails since both he and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman used private email accounts, specifically Gmail, in their ExxonMobil discussions.

 

Aug. 23, 2017: Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran publish a study conceding that #ExxonKnew was never really about what ExxonMobil “knew,” but about punishing ExxonMobil for arguing against specific climate policy proposals

Of course, Oreskes is the activist that the New York Times has credited for helping kick off the #ExxonKnew campaign, whose goal was to convince “a single sympathetic state attorney general” to investigate the company for supposed climate fraud. If there’s any doubt about her positions ahead of releasing this report, in 2015, Oreskes wrote: “Did Exxon deliberately mislead the public on climate change? Hello. Of course they did!”

August
Feb. 13, 2017: New York Post reports that the Rockefellers and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman were discussing the #ExxonKnew investigation before either the InsideClimate News (ICN) or Columbia School of Journalism #ExxonKnew pieces were published

As the New York Post revealed, “Documents show Schneiderman’s top staffers were in correspondence with Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund going back to February 2015. Schneiderman launched his probe that November.”

February
June 14, 2017: Court documents reveal Schneiderman used a private email address for official business while conducting #ExxonKnew investigation

Court documents, submitted by lawyers for the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), show that Schneiderman’s personal email address was used for official business because it is contained within a privilege log of correspondence that he provided to the court. A judge only recognized that the personal email was used after an in camera review of this log.

June

Editorial boards and legal experts denounce #ExxonKnew campaign

Leading voices from across the country have denounced the #ExxonKnew campaign. From the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post, editorial boards have expressed first amendment concerns.

Editorials

Dallas Morning News
Exxon says there's a conspiracy against the company among environmental activists, and it's probably right
“The narrative of an organic movement of environmental defenders taking on Big Oil has been depicted by some as a David-versus-Goliath showdown. But as more and more facts emerge, it is becoming increasingly clear that Exxon has been unfairly maligned by a group of activists and lawyers driven by politics but bereft of facts.” (Aug. 3, 2018)

Wall Street Journal
AG Campaign is an 'Attempt to Stamp Out All Disagreement on Global-Warming' Policy
“Even with the fearsome power of the Martin Act, this investigation appears built for media consumption more than courtroom success. There are no “facts” about the eventual extent and impact of climate change that Exxon or anyone else can hide, because inside or outside the company there are only estimates based largely on computer models.” (Nov. 8, 2015)

Bloomberg View
Investigation is 'Dangerous Arrogation of Power'
“Much as one may sympathize with Schneiderman's desire to encourage stronger action on climate change, this is not the way to go about it…Engaging in scientific research and public advocacy shouldn't be crimes in a free country. Using the criminal law to shame and encumber companies that do so is a dangerous arrogation of power.” (Nov. 10, 2015) 

Washington Post
Exxon 'Didn't Commit a Crime,' science depends on allowing criticism 
“Legitimate scientific inquiry depends on allowing strong, even unfair, criticism of the claims that scientists make. As the Exxon investigations show, respecting that principle will not lead to positive outcomes in all cases. But it nevertheless demands that the government leave a sizable buffer zone between irresponsible claims and claims it believes may be criminally fraudulent.” (Nov. 14, 2015)

USA Today
ExxonMobil has a right to its opinion 
"Schneiderman's push is based on an extraordinarily powerful New York law known as the Martin Act. It only requires prosecutors to prove a factual error — not fraudulent intent. This is the type of law that should be used with great caution for critical public purposes. There lies the irony in using a law designed to protect investors to go after the oil giant. The investigation won't push Exxon to reevaluate its public stance on climate change so future investors won't be misled. The company did that years ago. And the most likely effect of a costly legal examination of Exxon's past statements is a lower stock price, hurting current investors." (Nov. 22, 2015)

Financial Times
Legal basis for AG investigation is flimsy, free speech implications are alarming
"The investigations launched by the attorneys generals of some U.S. states and the Virgin Islands set a troubling precedent for other policy debates, and threaten to undermine the cause that they aim to support…The legal basis for these actions seems flimsy…Beyond that, the implications of the investigations for free speech on public policy issues are alarming." (April 24, 2016)

Boston Herald
Healey should pull out of this foolish effort to basically try to regulate speech
"Exxon can hire squads of lawyers to defend every statement it ever made about its research (they already are challenging Healey in court). The issue is moot today. The company cooperates with several carbon-reduction programs, supports a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and long has discussed climate risks in required financial disclosures." (June 27, 2016)

New York Post
Schneiderman's new claim in Exxon probe is a 'ludicrous stretch'
"Attorney General Eric Schneiderman must have hit a wall with his Exxon climate-change probe, since he’s suddenly changed his target.… Schneiderman’s new tack will only continue to politicize scientific debate and reinforce New York’s image as anti-business. It’s time for him to put the public’s interests before his own desire to please enviro-radicals — and end this probe for good." (Aug. 21, 2016)

Law Experts

Merritt B. Fox
Professor, Columbia University School of Law
“The Martin Act grants the attorney general extraordinary powers to subpoena private documents without either obtaining a court order, which is required in most ordinary New York criminal proceedings, or the filing of a complaint, which is required in an ordinary civil action and is subject to court review. The Exxon subpoena is an abuse of these extraordinary powers […] At the extreme, the Martin Act subpoena power could be used to bully corporations into any kind of desired reform under the guise of a securities investigation.” (Aug. 15, 2016)

Philip Hamberger
Professor, Columbia University
 “Mr. Schneiderman’s subpoena to Exxon Mobil thus stands apart. His ability to demand information in this way is a quintessential case of the fox guarding the henhouse. The threats to privacy in our society are not merely technological; they also are legal. In addition to electronic surveillance, nonjudicial subpoenas allow government to examine private documents as if they were an open book. And as shown by Mr. Schneiderman, when attorneys general can issue such subpoenas, a valuable judicial power becomes a prosecutorial threat to liberty and due process.” (May 11, 2016)

Dennis Vacco
Former Attorney General, State of New York
"I was proud to play a major role in holding tobacco companies responsible for the damage they caused and in setting America on a healthier path. We had a clear, convincing legal case and a noble cause. The same cannot be said for attorneys general involved in the current crusade […] The tobacco companies were deceivers. ExxonMobil has been open. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the politicized attorneys general pursuing the company. A chilling impact on public debate is not in our collective interest." (July 14, 2016)

Harvey Silverglate
Civil Liberties Attorney; Member, ACLU
“The Exxon investigation is “pure harassment [….]  It is outrageous for any law enforcement official to be seeking to win this battle for minds by flexing law enforcement muscle and trying to shut up the other side.” (June 16, 2016)

Tristan Brown
Professor, State University of New York; Attorney
“In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I am in the camp that believes that climate change is occurring, and that it will ultimately impose tremendous costs on the global financial system as its impacts increase in magnitude […] That said, the Democratic coalition is pursuing a dangerous means of achieving its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Its unprecedented definition of fraud threatens to impose an undue and possibly unachievable regulatory burden on energy firms and their investors.” (June 21, 2016)

C. Boyden Gray
Former U.S. Ambassador to the EU; Former White House Counsel
"The decision to single out Exxon is especially ill-conceived, because when it comes to actual proposals for real legislative action on climate change, Exxon’s advocacy has been indistinguishable from some of the leading environmental organizations. The Sierra Club’s former chief climate counsel has recounted how he and ExxonMobil’s climate policy manager “found common ground when we realized that we actually agreed on the best approach to climate policy” — namely a revenue neutral carbon tax — hardly the strategy one would expect from a company dedicated to covering up climate science" (Feb. 11, 2016)

Elizabeth Price Foley
Constitutional Law Professor, Florida International University
“When the attorneys general used their prosecutorial power to investigate scientists because the scientists are not embracing an orthodox view of climate change or anything else — that is an abuse of prosecutorial power.” (Sept. 14, 2016)

Thought Leaders

Steve Forbes
Publishing Executive
"On the very day in March when more than a dozen state attorneys general accused Exxon-Mobil of "fraud" and "deceiving the American people" on climate change, New York's attorney general, who led that news conference, met secretly with environmental activist organizations to discuss how they could attack oil companies. Email records show the New York AG's office urging activists "to not confirm that you attended or otherwise discuss the event" if reporters come calling. Exxon-Mobil won the first round in its fight against these coordinated state attorneys general in getting the truth-ignoring ringleader of this assault, who hails from the U.S. Virgin Islands, to withdraw his unreasonable subpoena. It should continue to take the fight to the other states that are coordinating with the green activists." (Sept. 16, 2016)

Kimberley Strassel
Columnist, Wall Street Journal
"The first thing to know about the crusade against Exxon by state attorneys general is that it isn’t about the law. The second thing to know is that it isn’t even about Exxon. What these liberal prosecutors really want is to shut down a universe of their most-hated ideological opponents… The goal of the Exxon probe isn’t to protect consumers or help the environment. It’s a message: Oppose us, and we will marshal our terrifying government powers to intimidate and threaten you, to force you to spend millions defending yourself, to eat up the time you’d otherwise use speaking out." (June 16, 2016)

Holman Jenkins Jr.
Columnist, Wall Street Journal
"The premise of the assault on Exxon, the Journal, other campaigns against “deniers,” is worse than foolish. The climate crowd has turned to persecuting critics as a substitute for meaningful climate action because, as President Obama has acutely observed, voters won’t support their efforts to jack up energy prices." (June 28, 2016) 

George Will
Columnist, Washington Post
"Progressivism’s determination to regulate thought by regulating speech is apparent in the campaign by 16 states’ attorneys general and those of the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, none Republican, to criminalize skepticism about the supposedly “settled” conclusions of climate science […] The attorney general of the Virgin Islands accuses ExxonMobil of criminal misrepresentation regarding climate change. This, even though before the U.S. government in 2009 first issued an endangerment finding regarding greenhouse gases, ExxonMobil favored a carbon tax to mitigate climate consequences of those gases." (April 22, 2016)

Jon Entine
Columnist, New York Post
"The Columbia project serves as a warning: A premier university hires an activist to run its J-school. It partners with an activist online Web site to target an energy company previously savaged by its new dean in his book. The effort is funded by foundations whose role as fossil-fuel critics was hidden from readers. In the end, the journalists themselves wind up playing defense." (March 1, 2016)

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