Environment

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.

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  • Lydia Cale

    The Oracle of Ripton ought to “bravely” investigate his employer – a prodigious waster of energy (whilst claiming sustainable-blah-blah). Think not? Drive around Middlebury College at night and notice how many lights are left on in the huge empty buildings which keep getting built! But, we don’t want to bit the hand that etc…

  • JP Cook

    Thank you, Mr. Renewable Energy McKibben for your wind towers and solar panels which do nothing to effect climate change (but certainly bring in healthy taxpayer subsidies to corporations and billionaire investors). So, a few people suffer and birds and bats are destroyed, so more pesticides are needed — oops –just a bit of collateral damage from the friendly skies). Thank you for your hubris at announcing you’re behind the attorney generals in pursuing Exxon. After all, the gas pipeline, which will destroy how many watersheds, etc., for 165 million (billion) to serve 3,000 customers (but, whoa, help the Middlebury campus)and whose costs have escalated back to ratepayers — but that’s okay! Middleburg is considered a “poverty” town by the state.” Sounds hokey, no? Hey! Then look to the sale of pristine woodland in Albany, VT, by Middlebury to an entity that ended with a clear-cut but they (logger) paid the fine. No sweat? After all, who got hurt but the environment and ecological balance of nature. Yes, the guru has made his pronouncements and we should all sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. After all, what do we know.

    • John Greenberg

      J.P. Cook:

      “wind towers and solar panels which do nothing to effect climate change ” Please provide some evidence for that statement: on its face, it appears to be patent nonsense.

      • chris kayes

        John,

        You are correct, it is possible to measure the effects of wind towers and solar panels on climate change.

        For example, using the current Paris Summit accord, it has been calculated that US climate policies will have reduced global temperature by 0.031 C in 2100.

        Now is Vermont’s portion of that decrease even measurable? I dunno.

        You can read about those calculations in a peer reviewed paper here:
        http://www.lomborg.com/press-release-research-reveals-negligible-impact-of-paris-climate-promises

        As others have said, Much Ado About Nothing.

      • John McClaughry

        Maybe you could supply some evidence that Vermont wind towers and solar farms do have some effect on climate change, John. But note – even Shumlin’s PSD shys away from making any such claim. We’re in this for bragging rights of some kind – at the expense of Vermonters.

        • John Greenberg

          John McClaughry:

          1) “Maybe you could supply some evidence that Vermont wind towers and solar farms do have some effect on climate change, John.”

          This shouldn’t be my responsibility, since I’m not the one who made the allegation. But lest anyone think there is no evidence, and since I’ve already provided it many times here, I’m happy to do so again.

          Here’s one paper with an accounting specific to New England. http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy08osti/42616.pdf. The numbers themselves are found in Appendix F on page 38 (41 of the pdf). Note the footnotes for the studies on which the authors rely. The whole paper, however, explains what it terms the “misperceptions” on this subject and the methodology used to make the calculations. The paper is extensively footnoted and also includes a substantial bibliography.

          Here’s the conclusion: “In summary, one of the important benefits of wind energy is that producing electricity from this source involves zero direct emissions of air pollutants. In contrast, fossil fuel-fired electric generation from coal, oil, or natural gas results in substantial direct emissions of numerous air pollutants that have adverse impacts on public health and the environment. Wind energy contributes to the reduction of emissions of various air pollutants, has played a role in improving regional air quality, and supports efforts to meet emission caps in a cost-effective manner.” (p. 18, 21 of pdf)

          Note that this paper is NOT limited to greenhouse gas emissions, but also includes OTHER air pollutants.

          For those with a more theoretical bent, here’s another article: “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions from Wind Energy: Location, Location, Location?” by Duncan Callaway and Meredith Fowlie, which can be found here: http://www.aere.org/meetings/documents/FOWLIE.pdf

          Here’s the abstract: “Increased deployment of intermittent renewable energy resources — wind energy in particular — has the potential to deliver cost effective GHG emissions in the near term. Accurate quantification of the environmental benefits from these resources has an important role to play in policy design, implementation, and evaluation. This paper develops an empirical approach to estimating marginal operating emissions impacts of new grid connected resources that captures both spatial and temporal variation in (and correlation between) marginal emissions rates and energy resource profiles. Using hourly data from mesoscale climate modeling of wind sites in New England and New York as an example, we demonstrate our methodological approach and explore the policy implications of our findings.” (p.1)

          I’ll warn readers that this paper is heavy on calculus and other math. I’ll confess that it’s heavier slogging than I want to deal with right at the moment, given that there is really no rational dispute about this issue.

          For a more abstract picture, using only basic arithmetic, I find the following paper both quite readable and quite illuminating: “Wind Power’s Displacement of Fossil Fuels”
          By Charles Komanoff, found here: http://www.komanoff.net/wind_power/Wind_Power%27s_Displacement_of_Fossil_Fuels.pdf

          Finally, for those who are gluttons for punishment, there are plenty more where these came from. Google “Displacement of air emissions by wind power” for plenty more papers.
          2) “But note – even Shumlin’s PSD shys away from making any such claim.” This meme has gone on too long as well.
          The following statement from Recchia doesn’t sound “shy” to me: ““Underlying the CEP is one big goal I want to emphasize that is especially timely in light of the Paris accords recently concluded: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, combating climate change, and preserving a planet that is livable for future generations.
          Vermont can and must make a meaningful contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And we’re doing it….” http://vtdigger.org/2015/12/16/chris-recchia-vermont-has-integral-role-in-global-climate-challenge/

          • chris kayes

            John,

            Some nice papers on reducing air pollution, but NOTHING about having any measurable effect on climate change.

            You need to understand that reducing greenhouse gas emissions means reducing water vapor, which is THE major green house gas. Any thing else has an insignificant effect on climate change.

            That goal is unreachable, which is why all this hand waving about CO2 pollution/reduction is just that. Meanwhile, added levels of CO2 have increased global crop production, especially in dry areas.

          • John Greenberg

            Chris Kayes:
            The papers include CO2, which by everyone’s admission but yours, is a greenhouse gas. They also include other pollutants.

          • chris kayes

            John

            I did NOT say that CO2 was NOT a greenhouse gas.
            Your reading comprehension is dismal at best and your statement is foolish.

  • Jamie Carter

    If they are guilty of fraud then they are guilty of fraud. Is there really a need for a rally against it? By having a rally and making it about climate change as opposed to legality and criminal justice 350.org simply looks more like a group with a vendetta against exxon then it does and advocacy group geared towards addressing climate change.

    Moreover, and why I find most of these groups to be shams, is the approach. Perhaps 350.org should start coming up with a positive approach to address climate change and focus their energy on that instead of stamping their feet and demanding we simply stop using fossil fuels. Maybe they start a program to donate plants and trees to people who want them, advocate for forest reclaimation, scientific research and ecological engineering that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Provide a path forward on how to solve the issue that people can come together and work towards instead of the divisive drawing a line in the sand and just demanding everyone stop what they are doing. But coming up with solutions and answers takes work and innovation, whereas demanding a halt to the use requires only a loud mouth.

    • Kim Fried

      Perhaps Mr. dedicated McKibben can use his personal money or the money of his organization 350.org to pay for the law suites. Don’t use my tax money.

      • John Zuppa

        I believe that Exxon and all other “energy” corporations (including “renewable corps.”) have lied and committed heinous crimes against us and our land…

        What I find incredibly hard to believe is that McKibben and his group still think that destroying ridges and forests in Vermont for Industrial Wind Factories is a viable “green” way of creating energy…

        They destroy more than they give…what is his disconnect here?…(He has never answered any of my inquiries)…

  • Irene Stewart

    I, for one, hope that Attorney General Sorrell does NOT commit one cent of taxpayer money to investigate Exxon Mobil. Our taxpayers cannot afford our state lawyers, to begin an investigation of a gigantic corporation. If New York and MA want to do this, fine. But do not involve Vermont in this paper chase. We are very highly taxed, we have budget deficits year after year, have many infrastructure needs right here, and do not need to be part of looking into what Exxon Mobil did for decades, and spending those hard earned dollars. Hopefully, our next Attorney General will not commit to spending one minute or one dime of taxpayer money on Exxon Mobil investigations.

    • chris kayes

      You have to understand that the State AGs are going after Exxon for the same reason they went after the Tobacco companies – Revenue. Now that the Tobacco money is running out, they seek a another source of revenue, it has nothing at all to do with health, the climate or whatever. Just follow the money.

  • Jessie McIndoe
  • Greg lapworth

    Maybe we should sue McKibben for his exaggerated predictions, Inciting fear and useless solutions.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept that a private interest that produces and markets a commodity can be held criminally or civilly liable if their own research discovers an adverse side effect of the product’s use that turns out to be common knowledge. The liquor industry surely is aware that there are negative aspects to the use of their products yet the State of Vermont takes it upon itself to distribute their products to Vermonters who want to purchase them. There are many toxic by-products that result from the manufacture of photovoltaic panels and the makers must surely be aware of this. When gun-phobes tried to use the courts to sue gun manufacturers and dealers because of the CRIMINAL MISUSE of these products, Congress passed a law to prevent such frivolous lawsuits. Perhaps a similar law needs to be passed to protect the producers of petroleum products from such sleazy legal tactics. Yes, there are serious environmental and safety problems associated with the common use of petroleum products just as with many things we commonly use but so far the good outweighs the bad. Even Priuses run on petrol. When anti-petroleum activists claim that they live a life free from the use of all petroleum products, then they will have some credibility.

    • John Fairbanks

      So, the contribution of carbon dioxide to global warming is “common knowledge”? That would be news to the Ethan Allen Institute, I believe. But the point is, they had the evidence, buried it, and then spearheaded a public disinformation campaign. That is known as fraud.

  • John McClaughry

    First off, somebody should have edited this line: “groups that dispute scientists’ findings on global warming.” It tells us, there are “scientists” whose findings are above debate, and there are “groups” of ignorant yahoos that vainly dispute “science”.
    This characterization won’t survive a close examination of the IPCC’s political activities and the corrupted “science” it relies upon. Examples: Mann’s phony hockey stick, Santer’s data truncation, the Darwin Zero “adjustment”, and the HadCru emails discussing how to “hide the decline” in global temperatures even as carbon dioxide concentrations kept rising.
    Science begins with curiosity, then formulation of a null hypothesis. Scientists gather and use observational data to see if it disproves that hypothesis. The relevant hypothesis is “Human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2) have no detectable effect on global temperature variability.”
    Two decades ago the IPCC announced it had disproved this hypothesis when its supercomputer program identified a human “fingerprint” for global warming: an equatorial “hot spot” in the upper troposphere. Satellites and radiosondes focused on that location, and lo, there was no “hot spot”. (US Climate Change Science Program, 2006). Of course the IPCC can “adjust” its supercomputer GCM programs and find another fingerprint, but so far it hasn’t..
    All scientific evidence is open to challenge by other scientists – that’s the way science works. That’s why raw data must be presented, as well as “adjusted” data. Then scientists debate, find ways to correct flaws, reformulate the experiments, and deride and sanction those who falsify findings for political or other motives. McKibben may or may not understand this, but he certainly ignores it.
    The editorial fix: “scientists who dispute the findings of the IPCC on climate change.”

    • John Fairbanks

      The 2014 IPCC summary for policymakers, which included:

      “Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmo- spheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic driv- ers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. {1.2, 1.3.1}”

      Link: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf

  • chris kayes

    For a good overview of the Exxon Climate papers, read this article by Andy May, a petrophysicist: https://andymaypetrophysicist.com/did-exxon-lie-about-the-dangers-of-climate-change-or-are-they-being-silenced-through-intimidation/

    A quote from one of the internal documents (the 1982 Exxon Consensus statement) is quite interesting:

    “As we discussed in the August 24 meeting, there is the potential for our research to attract the attention of the popular news media because of the connection between Exxon’s major business and the role of fossil fuel combustion in contributing to the increase of atmospheric CO2. Despite the fact that our results are in accord with most major researchers in the field and are subject to the same uncertainties, it was recognized that it is possible for these results to be distorted or blown out of proportion.

    Nevertheless the consensus position was that Exxon should continue to conduct scientific research in this area because of its potential importance in affecting future energy scenarios and to provide Exxon with the credentials required to speak with authority in this area. Furthermore our ethical responsibility is to permit the publication of our research in the scientific literature; indeed to do otherwise would be a breach of Exxon’s public position and ethical credo on honesty and integrity.”

    • John Fairbanks

      Great! As I mentioned in the conversation thread attending Rob Roper’s commentary, if there is exculpatory evidence in EM internal documents, by all means, bring it forward, or, at least, submit it for an in camera examination by the parties involved in the dispute.