McKibben hails states’ efforts to go after Exxon Mobil

climate change

Austin Davis, policy director for 350Vermont, speaks at an event Tuesday in Burlington about Exxon Mobil. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — International climate activist Bill McKibben told dozens of supporters Tuesday that he stands behind a group of state attorneys general exploring investigations into whether Exxon Mobil deceived investors about human-induced climate change.

New York’s and Massachusetts’ attorneys general — Eric Schneiderman and Maura Healey, respectively — are probing whether the company misled investors, and Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell earlier this year joined his counterparts from more than a dozen other states to consider legal action.

Reporters last year produced evidence that Exxon Mobil scientists warned company leaders as early as the 1970s of the potential dangers of climate change. Sorrell and others have intimated that the company may have committed fraud in its efforts to discredit independent scientists who reached similar conclusions.

At a rally in Burlington, where attorneys general from across the country are meeting, McKibben praised the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general for having “bravely” launched investigations into Exxon Mobil, but he said they’d likely meet stiff resistance from the industry.

The rally’s organizers from the anti-climate change group 350.org said one such instance has already surfaced: a suit filed June 13 against Sorrell by groups that dispute scientists’ findings on global warming. The Energy and Environment Legal Institute and Free Market Environmental Law Clinic accuse Sorrell of failing to turn over documents from his private email address. Attorneys for the groups have referred to these as “secret documents” that expose “collusion” against fossil fuel industries.

“[The documents] don’t exist, and we told them that” before the suit was filed, said Chief Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin. The lawsuit is pending in Washington County Superior Court.

Sorrell has not yet publicly committed his office to an investigation of Exxon Mobil.

Bill McKibben

Environmental activist Bill McKibben speaks Tuesday at a rally in Burlington. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger

McKibben said Schneiderman and Healey deserve recognition for having weathered “a barrage of attacks” already.

The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, headed by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has begun investigating the attorneys general, accusing them of suppressing oil and gas corporations’ rights to free speech.

Fraud isn’t protected by the First Amendment, McKibben said.

“No one’s trying to tell (Exxon Mobil) they can’t lie,” McKibben said, “but it turns out … that you’re not allowed to say anything you want to people who are investing in your company.”

Organizers held the event in front of the Burlington Hilton, where members of the National Association of Attorneys General are holding their annual conference.

One advocate of investigating Exxon Mobil said the conference topic — tobacco litigation undertaken by states — is germane to current events.

Tobacco was seen to cause adverse health effects long before such dangers were known generally to the public, said Austin Davis, policy director for 350Vermont. McKibben co-founded 350.org. Soon after Reader’s Digest broke the news that tobacco causes cancer, said Davis, the tobacco industry started a campaign to discredit researchers’ findings.

The fossil fuel industry is orchestrating a similar response to scientists’ findings on human-induced climate change, Davis said.

“We’ve spent the last 25 years debating whether this is real, and they’ve known that this is real,” Davis said.

Sorrell and several other attorneys general announced in March that they would collaborate in seeking legal avenues by which to fight climate change. They made the announcement at a New York event attended by Schneiderman, Healey and former Vice President Al Gore.

Schneiderman said at the time that he was investigating the possibility that companies including Exxon Mobil may have violated state consumer protection laws, specifically those pertaining to fraud.

Schneiderman said fossil fuel companies learned from their own scientists that climate change is caused by an excess of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Those companies used that information to direct their activities — for example, planning to drill in the Arctic once polar ice had receded, and engineering oil rigs for rising sea levels — while telling the public there were “no competent models to project climate patterns,” Schneiderman said in March.

Many of the same companies spent millions in an effort to convince the public that renewable energy does not provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels, Schneiderman said.

These actions meet the definition of fraud, Gore said, and he likened the collaboration by the attorneys general to that undertaken against tobacco companies. State attorneys general were instrumental in successful cases brought against tobacco companies for deceiving the public about risks associated with tobacco use, he said.

The states collaborating with Vermont and New York intend to take an “all levers approach,” Schneiderman said. Attorneys general in each state would pursue whatever action their own statutes might allow, he said.

Correction: Austin Davis’ job title has been corrected.

Mike Polhamus

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