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Smoke and Fumes: Six Decades of Oil-Tobacco Nexus of Deception and Attacks on Science


The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) today expanded its website, featuring a new video and more internal industry documents dating back to the 1950s that reveal the nexus between the oil and tobacco industries’ shared campaigns to undermine science to delay accountability and political action to curtail their deadly products.

CIEL has uncovered new evidence showing that it was the work performed for the oil industry by PR firms (particularly Hill & Knowlton) that attracted the tobacco industry to follow suit — in contrast to the prevailing narrative that Big Oil deployed the Tobacco Playbook to ward off responsibility for climate change resulting from its fossil fuel pollution.

“Again and again we found both the PR firms and the researchers worked first for oil, then for tobacco,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett in a statement. “It was a pedigree the tobacco companies recognized and sought out.”

ExxonMobil’s excuse in the face of #ExxonKnew has, in part, relied on the defense that oil is not the new tobacco. At the end of the day, as Muffett points out in the video below, the final result is the same, despite who was first to devise the strategies of deception and attacking inconvenient science.

The infamous “Doubt is our product” tobacco memo articulated the strategy most succinctly, but the whole package of deception, delay, and attacks on science have been shared, refined and endlessly deployed by both industries (and many others) since the 1950s.

It reminds me of that old “I learned it by watching you” anti-drug PSA. You’re both still busted, tobacco and oil industries. It doesn’t matter who came first.

Watch the video for the whole story, and check out for the incredible cache of internal documents uncovered by the Center for International Environmental Law

Déjà vu: as with tobacco, the climate wars are going to court

The fossil fuel industry copied Big Tobacco’s racketeering playbook. They’re following the same path to court, where tobacco lost

House Science Committe Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is coming to the defense of fossil fuel companies that are accused of deceiving the public on climate change to maximize their own profits. Photograph: Scott J. Ferrell

House Science Committe Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is coming to the defense of fossil fuel companies that are accused of deceiving the public on climate change to maximize their own profits. Photograph: Scott J. Ferrell

Investigative journalism has uncovered a “web of denial” in which polluting industries pay “independent” groups to disseminate misinformation to the public and policymakers. The same groups and tactics were employed first by the tobacco industry, then fossil fuel companies. Big Tobacco has been to court and lost; now it’s Big Oil’s turn. Political leaders are choosing sides in this war.

Research by Inside Climate News revealed that Exxon did top notch climate science research in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which revealed the dangers its products posed via climate change. Soon thereafter, Exxon launched misinformation campaigns by funding “think tanks” and front groups to manufacture doubt about climate science and the expert consensus on human-caused global warming.

What #ExxonKnew vs what #ExxonDid. Illustration: John Cook,

What #ExxonKnew vs what #ExxonDid. Illustration: John Cook,

Exxon wasn’t alone. Koch Industries, Peabody Energy, and other fossil companies have similarly funneled vast sums of money to these groups. Last week, Senate Democrats, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and vice presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken signed a Resolution expressing congressional disapproval of the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation campaign. 19 Senate Democrats also took to the floor of the Senate to speak out against the web of denial, with repeated references to the tobacco/fossil connections.

The climate battle goes to court

The fossil fuel industry has already put forth its best scientific argument in court, and lost. Now 17 state attorneys general, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have formed a coalition to investigate ExxonMobil’s activities. As Schneiderman put it:

The First Amendment, ladies and gentlemen, does not give you the right to commit fraud

However, Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, along with his Republican colleagues last week issued subpoenas to Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, accusing them of violating Exxon’s First Amendment rights. As Smith claimed:

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.

In this battle of First Amendment claims, Big Oil & Coal use the same argument as Big Tobacco, who lost.

The fossil fuel industry copied the tobacco playbook

Last century, we saw a similar battle with tobacco. By the 1950s, the tobacco industry knew that its products caused cancer and other diseases. They still marketed their harmful products to children, and soon created pseudo-academic institutes like the Council for Tobacco Research to cast doubt on smoking’s damage. However, the institutes’ connections to the tobacco industry were too obvious; they wanted “independent” voices.

In the 1980s the Koch brothers started creating a vast web of “think tanks” that could simulate credible independence, funded via dark money, often tax-exempt. Big Tobacco eagerly joined, to “quarterback behind the scenes.” They contributed great marketing talent, some later hired by Kochs.

As extensively documented at DeSmogBlog, Big Tobacco has long funded science-denying think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, George Marshall Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and Manhattan Institute, to name a few. ExxonMobil later funded these same groups.

The fossil fuel industry has adopted the tobacco industry’s playbook, and shared the same web of denial. The Senate Resolution made this point, calling out both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries for having:

(A) developed a sophisticated and deceitful campaign that funded think tanks and front groups, and paid public relations firms to deny, counter, and obfuscate peer-reviewed science; and

(B) used that misinformation campaign to mislead the public and cast doubt in order to protect their financial interest

Their tactics have grown more sophisticated, for example using money anonymizers like Donors Trust to ensure their “dark money” becomes even harder to trace.

The tobacco industry lost in court

In 1999, the US Justice Department filed a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) lawsuit against the major tobacco companies and their associated industry groups. In 2006, US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the tobacco industry’s campaign to “maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public” about the health hazards of smoking amounted to a racketeering enterprise. She wrote a clear statement, appealed fruitlessly by tobacco companies:

The First Amendment Does Not Protect Defendants’ False and Misleading Public Statements

The attorneys general investigating Exxon have a strong case that the fossil fuel industry is similarly guilty of racketeering by deceiving the public in order to maximize profits. Exxon and other fossil fuel companies knew of the dangers of carbon pollution more than three decades ago, and yet funneled tens of millions of dollars to think tanks that disseminate misinformation to try to convince the public and policymakers otherwise.

Sharon Eubanks led the Justice Department trial team, as documented in the book Bad Acts: The Racketeering Case Against the Tobacco Industry and was a key contributor to the report Establishing Accountability for Climate Change Damages. Of the Exxon case, she said:

I think a RICO action is plausible and should be considered

The First Amendment defense of the fossil fuel industry by House Republicans simply doesn’t hold water. Defending the fossil fuel industry today is no different than defending the tobacco industry in the 1990s, as did Lamar Smith’s colleague “Smokey Joe” Barton (R-TX).

Unsurprisingly, oil & gas is the top industry donor to Lamar Smith. History books will reflect poorly on those who sold out millions of peoples’ health for personal gain or industry profits, and on those who worked to destabilize the climate on which future generations will rely for the sake of their own political power or ExxonMobil’s record profits.

Biggest US coal company funded dozens of groups questioning climate change

Analysis of Peabody Energy court documents show company backed trade groups, lobbyists and thinktanks dubbed ‘heart and soul of climate denial’

Peabody Energy, America’s biggest coalmining company, has funded at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on manmade climate change and oppose environment regulations, analysis by the Guardian reveals.

The funding spanned trade associations, corporate lobby groups, and industry front groups as well as conservative thinktanks and was exposed in court filings last month.

The coal company also gave to political organisations, funding twice as many Republican groups as Democratic ones.

Peabody, the world’s biggest private sector publicly traded coal company, was long known as an outlier even among fossil fuel companies for its public rejection of climate science and action. But its funding of climate denial groups was only exposed in disclosures after the coal titan was forced to seek bankruptcy protection in April, under competition from cheap natural gas.

Environmental campaigners said they had not known for certain that the company was funding an array of climate denial groups – and that the breadth of that funding took them by surprise.

The company’s filings reveal funding for a range of organisations which have fought Barack Obama’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and denied the very existence of climate change.

“These groups collectively are the heart and soul of climate denial,” said Kert Davies, founder of the Climate Investigation Center, who has spent 20 years tracking funding for climate denial. “It’s the broadest list I have seen of one company funding so many nodes in the denial machine.”

Among Peabody’s beneficiaries, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change has insisted – wrongly – that carbon emissions are not a threat but “the elixir of life” while the American Legislative Exchange Council is trying to overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules cutting emissions from power plants. Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity campaigns against carbon pricing. The Oklahoma chapter was on the list.

Contrarian scientists such as Richard Lindzen and Willie Soon also feature on the bankruptcy list.

So does the Washington lobbyist and industry strategist Richard Berman, whose firm has launched a welter of front groups attacking the EPA rules.

The filings do not list amounts or dates. But the documents suggest Peabody supported dozens of groups engaged in blocking environmental regulations in addition to a number of contrarian scientists who together have obstructed US and global action on climate change.

The support squares up with Peabody’s public position on climate change. The company went further than the fossil fuel companies and conservative groups that merely promoted doubt about the risks of climate change, asserting that rising carbon emissions were beneficial.

Just last year, Peabody wrote to the White House Council on Environmental Quality describing carbon dioxide as “a benign gas that is essential for all life” and denying the dangers of global warming.

“While the benefits of carbon dioxide are proven, the alleged risks of climate change are contrary to observed data, are based on admitted speculation, and lack adequate scientific basis,” the company wrote in the 24 March 2015 letter.

The company agreed in November to make fuller disclosures about global warming risks under a settlement deal reached with the New York attorney general. Peabody had been under investigation for misleading investors and the public about the potential impact of climate change on its business.

Even so, the full extent of Peabody’s financial support for climate denial is unlikely to be revealed until the completion of bankruptcy proceedings.

“The breadth of the groups with financial ties to Peabody is extraordinary. Thinktanks, litigation groups, climate scientists, political organisations, dozens of organisations blocking action on climate all receiving funding from the coal industry,” said Nick Surgey, director of research for the Center for Media and Democracy.

“We expected to see some denial money, but it looks like Peabody is the treasury for a very substantial part of the climate denial movement.”

Peabody’s filings revealed funding for the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate lobby group which opposes clean energy standards and tried to impose financial penalties on homeowners with solar panels, as well as a constellation of conservative thinktanks and organisations.

These included the State Policy Network and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which worked to defeat climate bills in Congress and are seeking to overturn Environmental Protection Agency rules to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, as well as the Congress for Racial Equality, which was a major civil rights organisation in the 1960s.

The filings also revealed funding for the George C Marshall Institute, the Institute for Energy Research, and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which are seen as industry front groups.

The names of a number of well-known contrarian academics also feature in the Peabody filings, including Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon has been funded almost entirely by the fossil fuel industry, receiving more than $1.2m from oil companies and utilities, but this was the first indication of Peabody funding.

Soon and the Smithsonian did not respond to requests for comment.

Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer, two contrarian scientists who appeared for Peabody at hearings in Minnesota last month on the social cost of carbon, were also included in the bankruptcy filings.

Peabody refused to comment on its funding for climate denial groups, as revealed by the bankruptcy filings.

“While we wouldn’t comment on alliances with particular organizations, Peabody has a track record of advancing responsible energy and environmental policies, and we support organizations that advocate sustainable mining, energy access and clean coal solutions, in line with our company’s leadership in these areas,” Vic Svec, Peabody’s senior vice-president for global investor and corporate relations, wrote in an email.

Over the last decade, fossil fuel companies distanced themselves from open climate denial. Much of the funding for climate denial went underground, with corporations and conservative billionaires routing the funds through secretive networks such as Donors’ Trust.

But the sharp drop in coal prices, under competition from cheap natural gas, and a string of bankruptcies among leading US coal companies has inadvertently revealed the coal industry’s continued support for climate denial – even as oil companies moved away from open rejection of the science.

Earlier this year, bankruptcy filings from the country’s second-biggest coal company, Arch Coal Inc, revealed funding to a group known mainly for its unsuccessful lawsuit against the climate scientist Michael Mann.

The $10,000 donation to the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E) was made in 2014, according to court documents filed in Arch’s chapter 11 bankruptcy protection case.

Last October, court filings from another coal company seeking bankruptcy protection, Alpha Natural Resources, revealed an $18,600 payment to Chris Horner, a fellow at E&E.

Exxon Mobil’s Shareholders Meeting Was Totally Overrun by Climate Demands

It’s impossible for fossil fuel executives to get some damn peace and quiet. At its annual shareholder meeting in Dallas, Texas, Exxon Mobil faced investors’ demands that the company get serious about climate change adaptation and regulation.

Since 1997, Exxon Mobil has fended off similar demands from its shareholders, but not at this scale. Wednesday’s meeting included the largest coalition of climate-activist investors yet of two-dozen large shareholders representing $8 trillion under management. But eight of the nine climate shareholder resolutions still failed.

The one proposal that passed, at 62 percent of the vote, allows shareholders who hold 3 percent or more of the company’s shares for more than three years to nominate up to a quarter of the board’s directors every year. In theory, this could allow for a climate activist to become a director at the company.

One climate resolution that failed suggested a company report on how climate policies would impact its business. It was the second-most popular resolution, yet earned just 38 percent of the vote.

Other proposals included calls for more transparency on Exxon’s hydraulic fracturing activities, lobbying, diversity and makeup of the board, and its plans to adapt to a renewable energy economy.

The shareholder resolutions came from the New York City’s comptroller’s office, religious groups, and investing firms demanding the company prepare for a future of climate change regulations.

Father Michael Crosby, a Franciscan priest from Milwaukee, presented a proposal asking for a climate expert to be put on the company’s board. “Not one person has any expertise on climate,” he said of the board. “Exxon Mobil has a chance to restore the public’s trust, it’s a time for conversion.”

Sister Patricia Daly, a Dominican nun from Caldwell, N.J., presented a resolution asking Exxon to adopt a policy acknowledging the 2 degrees Celsius target. “Our company has chosen to disregard the consensus in the scientific community,” she said. “As the world moves forward, Exxon Mobil stands still.”

“Many of the world’s largest investors are voting against the [Exxon] management today,” said Edward Mason, head of responsible investing for the Church of England.

The board recommended to deny all proposals presented.

“For many years now, ExxonMobil has held the view that the risks of climate change are serious, and do warrant thoughtful action,” said Exxon CEO and chair Rex Tillerson during the shareholder’s call Wednesday morning. But asked to cut the company’s ties with groups promoting climate denial, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Tillerson declined.

All the while, the company insisted it’s serious about climate change, touting its three-decade commitment to climate research in a slide shown below. Tillerson left some things unsaid: While the company internally recognized manmade climate change as real, it advocated for skepticism publicly.

Oil giants have faced growing pressure to acknowledge climate change — both Royal Dutch Shell and BP passed similar resolutions last year. Chevron also voted on shareholder demands on climate on Wednesday.

Though Exxon remains firm, it will see continued pressure from activists and worried investors. Outside the meeting in Dallas, climate activists swarmed, demanding that the company change its ways.

Exxon’s Lawyer in Climate Science Probe Has History Helping Big Tobacco and NFL Defend Against Health Claims

Ted Wells, an attorney hired by ExxonMobil to represent the company against accusations it lied about the climate risks of burning fossil fuels, also represented the tobacco industry in the lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1999 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, DeSmog has found. Wells also defended the National Football League (NFL) in the infamous “Deflategate” matter as well as in litigation over the far more serious issue of concussions.

Wells has represented ExxonMobil since at least December 2015, following New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s announcement that his office would probe Exxon’s role in funding climate change denial despite its long-held understanding and pioneering research into climate change.

Wells’ name also appears on an April 13 legal filing Exxon submitted in response to a subpoena issued by the Virgin Islands’AG Office, a sign the “private empire” has retained him for the wider probe being carried out by a group pf Attorneys General.

Wells has made a career out of working on behalf of clients with legal claims often flying in the face of well-established science, with legal industry trade publication Inside Counsel referring to him as a top attorney-for-hire for crisis situations in an April 2007 article.

A DeSmog investigation has also found parallels in legal and public relations defense tactics deployed by Wells on behalf of those past clients and the tactics currently being utilized for his current big-ticket client, ExxonMobil.

Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian of science who has long studied the denial industry and wrote the indispensable book “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” sees Exxon’s hire of Wells as a positive and as a potential sign the company sees the writing on the wall.

“Call me an optimist, but I think this is good news,” she told DeSmog. “The tobacco industry was successfully prosecuted, and, perhaps with that history in mind, the NFL has recently agreed to a major settlement with its players. So perhaps Mr. Wells will guide Exxon towards a sensible path towards the future, rather than a misguided retreat into the past.”

Dan Zegart, a senior fellow at the Climate Investigations Center and author of the book “Civil Warriors: The Legal Siege on the Tobacco Industry,” told DeSmog: “Bringing in Ted Wells is a sign that ExxonMobil isn’t thinking settlement — they’re going to fight these attorney general actions tooth and nail. This is a guy who will throw up every possible defense for Exxon, like he did for tobacco. Every move in this playbook has been pressure-tested over decades.”

Exxon Representation

This is far from the first prominent lawsuit for which Wells has offered his billable services to Exxon, a company which funded climate denial to the tune of $31 million, by conservative estimates, between 1998 and 2014.

In the early 2000’s, Wells counseled ExxonMobil in a federal corruption case, with an ex-Mobil official named J. Bryan Williams pleading guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy as part of corruption that was at the time endemic in Kazakhstan.

Wells proclaimed Exxon’s innocence in the case outside of the courthouse after Williams’ guilty plea, distancing himself from Williams by stating that “Exxon Mobil had no knowledge of the over $7 million in secret payments that he received and hid in secret bank accounts.”

Wells, too, provided legal representation to Exxon in the lawsuit filed against it by citizens of Indonesia who alleged they had been tortured by private security guards on the company payroll.

That case, which reached the U.S. Court of Appeals, became somewhat moot when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum case that the Alien Tort Statute does not offer non-U.S. citizen victims of human rights abuses committed abroad by U.S.-based corporations a path to legal justice in U.S. courts.

More recently, Wells represented Exxon in New Jersey in a lawsuit filed against the company by the State of New Jersey in 2004, which alleged the corporation’s responsibility for rampant statewide pollution. This culminated in an August 2015 $225 million settlement, far less than the $8.9 billion asked for by the plaintiffs.

NFL Science Denial

Yet for most of the U.S. population, Wells is best known for the “tough guy” role he has played in the “DeflateGate” case on behalf of the National Football League (NFL). It turns out that story, like Exxon and like the tobacco wars, has an anti-science spin too.

In that case, famed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady faces a four-game NFL suspension for allegedly deflating footballs in a 2015 playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts in order to gain a competitive edge. Wells has provided theNFL with legal representation for the ongoing saga.

But contrary to the NFL‘s crackdown on cheating narrative, the science points to the fact that Brady and the Patriots actually may not have cheated. It all centers around what is known as the “Wells Report” — an investigation by Ted Wells of the allegedly deflated footballs.

That report’s findings have come under question by numerous scientists, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and even the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

The most ardent criticism of the study centers around the scientific report outsourced to a firm called Exponent Inc. that the Wells Report relies upon to make its case. The tobacco industry also used Exponent Inc. research to claim secondhand smoke does not cause cancer.

“The first thing you know is that when Exponent is brought in to help a company, that company is in big trouble,” Cindy Gage, owner of an environmental and agricultural consulting firm in California, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.

While Wells represented the NFL for “DeflateGate,” he also provided his legal services for the much more scandalous — from a human health and public interest perspective — concussion lawsuit the NFL faced, brought against it by over 4,800 former players. That lawsuit ended with a $1 billion settlement, which some players have appealed, and some have pointed to as being rife with loopholes allowing the NFL to get out of trouble on-the-cheap.

A recent New York Times investigation pointed to myriad links between the tobacco industry and the NFL, including overlap in lobbyists and legal representation, though Wells’ name goes unmentioned in the article. Wells’ law firm, though,responded

to the article in a letter published by Politico.

“Tossing around unsubstantiated allegations of links between an industry and Big Tobacco is reckless and dangerous. Like all broad-brush attacks, it undermines reasoned, fact-based debate,” reads the March 28 letter. “In short, there is nothing in the Times’s story that can fairly, credibly and objectively support the false and defamatory charge that the NFL had ties to the tobacco industry.”

Wells and Big Tobacco

Just over a decade ago, Wells went to bat for Philip Morris in the United States v. Philip Morris lawsuit filed against the company by the DOJ in a case ending with a prosecution, but with actual penalties tantamount to kid glove treatment. The treatment, which came from DOJ political appointees, motivated lead DOJ prosecutor for the case Sharon Eubanks to resign from her post.

In court documents reviewed by DeSmog, Wells’ tobacco arguments parallel, in many ways, those Wells made for Exxon in its April 13 response to the Virgin Islands’ subpoena. Much of that line of argumentation over a decade ago in the tobacco case centered around proving or disproving that Philip Morris would likely commit fraud in the future if left unprosecuted, a key tenet of a successful RICO prosecution.

Throughout the tobacco RICO case, in legal filings and in the courtroom, Wells emphasized how Philip Morris’ behavior had changed and how it had become more a socially responsible corporate entity. In the main, Wells said Philip Morris had done so by withdrawing from the industry-manufactured debate on smoking as it relates to health and addiction, as well as by deferring to the judgment of the public health community on smoking’s human health impacts.

As a document obtained from University of California-San Francisco’s (UCSF) Legacy Tobacco Documents Library details, Wells cross-examined Philip Morris’ “point person“ — General Counsel Denise Keane — about its public relations website. That site attempted to convey that the company no longer participated in the scientific denial of tobacco’s human health impacts.

“The company’s purpose was, number one, to make in a very public way its commitment to no longer being part of what I would call an old world, but to take a step that would codify really for all purposes going forward the fact that it was going to be aligned with the public health community, that it was going to communicate the message of the public health community,” Keane testified under oath at a January 19, 2005 hearing. “And when we talk about what’s on the website, you know, to me, the guiding principle is communicating the message of the public health community.”

But first and foremost, it appears the website existed for Philip Morris’s public relations purposes. A 2008 academic paper published in the journal Public Health Nursing by Ruth Malone and Elizabeth Smith, both professors at UCSF, concluded the website’s existence did not signify any sort of radical shift in company culture on public health.

That paper cites a June 1999 memorandum published in the UCSF tobacco archives, which describes the rationale behind the website.


“The objective of this is to increase the awareness of our social programs and to improve the public perception of our company in the US during these very challenging times resulting from the very negative environment for our tobacco business,” reads the memo. “Hence, we want to capitalize on this advertising campaign by inviting viewers to a Website, where they can learn more about these programs and Philip Morris in general.”

ExxonMobil currently appears to be positioning itself as having moved away from the “old world,” announcing it would be hiring a new climate change researcher in the midst of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announcing his office had opened an investigation on Exxon.

Keane also declared, under cross-examination by Wells, that her company had, under the auspices of an October 2, 1997 Statement of Position, withdrawn from the debate it had manufactured on the human health impacts of tobacco use. As Wells put it in his opening statement for the federal trial, this served as proof Philip Morris had entered into a ”permanent irreversible” dawn of a “new era.”


A similar notion of involvement in public policy “debate” before it had reached an overwhelming scientific consensus arose in Exxon’s response to the Virgin Islands’ subpoena signed off on by Wells on April 13, with the word “debate” used 11 times by the company’s legal team.

Free Speech Attack?

Like with the Philip Morris precursor, Wells and the Exxon legal team attempted to convey the company’s shift from student of climate change science, to funder of climate denial and attacks on science, and then the shift back again to being a responsible corporate citizen concerned about climate change impacts and policy solutions.

“ExxonMobil has publicly and repeatedly acknowledged risks related to climate change” in recent years, Wells and his legal team wrote in response to the Virgin Islands’ AG Office subpoena, citing three example of such acknowledgment in recent years. In so doing, Exxon also claimed the Virgin Islands’ AG Office had launched an attack on its free speech rights and its ability to take part in such debates in earlier years.

“The chilling effect of this inquiry, which discriminates based on viewpoint to target one side of an ongoing policy debate, strikes at protected speech at the core of the First Amendment,” wrote Wells and the Exxon legal team.

The Virgin Islands rebutted Wells and Exxon in an April 25 response.

“Your argument that this investigation targets protected speech mirrors arguments that were decisively rejected in the United States’s case against tobacco, which held tobacco companies financially responsible for and imposed sweeping injunctive relief to address a decades-long scheme by those defendants to misrepresent the scientific facts regarding smoking,” reads the letter signed by Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Earl Walker. “If ExxonMobil knowingly deceived consumers and investors about climate change, it, too, is not above the law.”

Numerous conservative groups — some with ties to the climate change denial echo chamber such as Koch-funded groups like Competitive Enterprise Institute, Pacific Legal Foundation, and Heritage Foundation — have also called the Virgin Islands subpoena a First Amendment attack.

So too did the editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal and the National Review Magazine. The Free Speech in Science Project, a group whose funding stream has yet to be revealed, has also pushed a First Amendment argument.

“Doubt is Our Product”

The tobacco industry is now infamous for writing in a 1969 memo that “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” Yet, Exxon has even said in its own late 1970s studies that “there is no doubt” that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere was harmful.

If doubt is the product, then Wells has produced a legal career representing and defending doubt — from the tobacco wars, through to the NFL‘s concussion crisis and now into today’s “ExxonKnew” saga.

Wells did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

This piece first appeared at DeSmogBlog.

AGs’ motives questioned as Exxon climate change ‘fraud’ probe recalls tobacco windfall

After winning an $800 million settlement last year against Hess Oil, Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude E. Walker was eager to find what he described as other litigation “targets.”

He found one such deep pocket in Exxon Mobil. But his investigation into whether the company engaged in climate change “fraud” is drawing accusations that the end game for Mr. Walker and other like-minded attorneys general is a mammoth payday modeled after the 1998 tobacco settlement.

Mr. Walker has been the most aggressive member of AGs United for Clean Power, an unprecedented coalition of 17 attorneys general aimed at pursuing fraud accusations against Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies.

“I believe this $800 million settlement gives the Virgin Islands Attorney General a lot of credibility in being involved in the inner circle of this because he’s proved that he can shake down a major company,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of Mr. Walker’s targets.

And the Exxon investigation may be just the beginning.

“In talking about widening the investigation, the goal is to bring in the entire oil industry. It’s not just Exxon they’re after,” Mr. Ebell said.

Already comparisons have been drawn between AGs United for Clean Power and the state officials who secured the 1998 deal in which five major tobacco companies agreed to pay $10 billion per year indefinitely to the states.

“It was a combined effort in which the state attorneys general played the crucial role in securing a historic victory for public health,” said former Vice President Al Gore Jr. at the coalition’s March 29 press conference in New York City.

“From the time the tobacco companies were first found out, as evidenced by the historic [Surgeon General’s report] of 1964, it took 40 years for them to be held to account under the law,” Mr. Gore said. “We do not have 40 years to continue suffering the consequences of the fraud allegedly being committed by the fossil fuel companies where climate change is concerned.”

Pushing for a parallel effort at the federal end is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, who reiterated his call Wednesday for the Justice Department to launch a probe into the oil-and-gas industry.

“There are obvious similarities between the fossil fuel industry’s denial of its products’ climate effects and the tobacco industry’s denial of its products’ health effects,” Mr. Whitehouse said in a speech on the Senate floor. “These similarities are sufficient that a proper inquiry should be made about pursuing a civil lawsuit like the one the Justice Department brought and won against Big Tobacco.”

Given the sizes of the industries involved, however, the tobacco settlement could look like peanuts next to the prospect of a financial windfall from the fossil fuel business.
“You need to compare the relative size of the oil industry and the tobacco industry,” Mr. Ebell said. “Tobacco is tiny compared to oil. So if they could get $10 billion out of the tobacco industry, think of what their goals are for the oil industry.”

A questionnaire obtained by the free market Energy & Environmental Legal Institute shows that Mr. Walker had already served Exxon Mobil with a subpoena and was actively seeking other companies to investigate when coalition members met in March.

“We are interested in identifying other potential litigation targets,” Mr. Walker said in response to a question asking for input on the coalition’s goals “beyond the federal/EPA advocacy and litigation.”

The only independent in the coalition — the rest are Democrats — Mr. Walker also said he was “eager to hear what other attorneys general are doing and find concrete ways to work together on litigation to increase our leverage.”

Born in England and educated in New York, Mr. Walker was appointed attorney general in August 2015 by Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp. Months later Mr. Walker secured an $800 million settlement with Hess after the company closed its St. Croix refinery despite receiving what he called “billions of dollars in tax breaks.”

He said the settlement would be used in part to create an “environmental response trust that will deal with cleanup of the site and help convert part of it to solar development, we hope.”

At the press conference he described Mr. Gore as “one of my heroes,” while New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said Mr. Walker brought “tremendous energy” to the climate change coalition.

“We have launched an investigation into a company that we believe must provide us with information about what they knew about climate change and when they knew it, and we’ll make our decision about what action to take,” Mr. Walker said.

He described the investigation as “David and Goliath, the Virgin Islands against a huge corporation, but we will not stop until we get to the bottom of this and make it clear to our residents as well as the American people that we have to do something transformational.”

Mr. Walker has issued three subpoenas, including one to Exxon that calls for its communications with more than 100 universities, academics and think tanks. Exxon is challenging the subpoena, saying it violates the company’s First Amendment rights.

Matt Pawa, a lawyer affiliated with the Climate Accountability Institute who briefed the attorneys general before their press conference, said that Exxon needs to “come clean about its commercial relationships with those it has paid to peddle its message of climate denial.”

“Commercial speech is different, and the First Amendment does not protect fraud,” Mr. Pawa said in an email. “Exxon paid various individuals and groups as part of a sophisticated and far-reaching disinformation campaign on global warming.”

Despite his position as the Virgin Islands‘ top law enforcement official, however, Mr. Walker isn’t necessarily waiting for all the evidence before making a judgment on the oil industry’s guilt.

“We cannot continue to rely on fossil fuel. Vice President Gore has made it clear we have to rely on renewable energy. That’s the only solution,” Mr. Walker said. “It’s troubling that as the polar caps melt, you have companies that are looking at that as an opportunity to go and drill, to go and get more oil. Why? How selfish can you be? Your product is destroying this earth.”

Mr. Schneiderman launched his own state investigation last year into whether Exxon covered up its knowledge of the risks of global warming and lied to investors about the impact to its bottom line from catastrophes produced by climate change.

Exxon has denied suppressing climate change research, while skeptics argue that no scientific connection has been established between disasters like hurricanes and elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Mr. Ebell said the playbook for the climate change investigation mirrors that used in the tobacco litigation: First, stop Exxon from defending itself and funding its supporters, and then make a deal.

Exxon officials have come out in support of a carbon tax and announced that the company would no longer fund skeptics’ groups, “so what’s left, except to get a settlement?” he asked.

The difference is that there are many more reputable scientists and researchers today disputing the impact of greenhouse gases than there were disputing the health effects of smoking.

“Now with the tobacco settlement, there was an actual basis for that case. The tobacco industry had concealed things, it knew about the health effects of smoking tobacco for a long time, and it had lied under oath,” Mr. Ebell said. “This is entirely different, but you can see we’re going down the same road here.”

Report reveals secret meeting by environmentalists to target Exxon, oil industry

Environmentalists backing a Big Tobacco-style government probe of oil companies plotted their strategy for targeting companies like ExxonMobil at a closed-door meeting in Manhattan earlier this year, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The report sheds new light on an evolving campaign against the fossil fuel industry that has drawn in several attorneys general who are now investigating ExxonMobil.

According to the Journal, the January meeting in Manhattan was a key moment and brought together several veteran environmental activists to discuss how to “establish in [the] public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm.”

Critics described the meeting as proof of “collusion” in the campaign against ExxonMobil.

That push has developed as several AGs — most recently in Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands — have launched their own investigations into claims that oil companies misled the public about the risks of global warming.

The company went to court Wednesday to try to block a subpoena by the Virgin Islands attorney general.

“The chilling effect of this inquiry, which discriminates based on viewpoint to target one side of an ongoing policy debate, strikes at protected speech at the core of the First Amendment,” the company’s court filing said, according to the Journal.

The newspaper reported that environmentalists want to encourage state prosecutors, as well as the Justice Department, to launch investigations.

“It’s about helping the larger public understand the urgencies of finding climate solutions,” Lee Wasserman, head of the Rockefeller Family Fund which hosted the January meeting, told the Journal. “It’s not really about Exxon.”

While the state investigations utilize different laws, they all aim to replicate the success of the federal government’s 1999 case against Big Tobacco, in which the industry was accused of misleading the public about smoking and nicotine risks.

Exxon representatives say the accusations against the oil giant are “laughable” and “not credible.”

Hong Kong electric company plans floating LNG terminal near Soko Islands

CLP Power says project will open city up to additional source of gas supply and help meet post-2020 fuel mix requirements

CLP Power is eyeing the eastern waters of the Soko Islands, off southern Lantau, for a floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal that will enable it to tap more gas from international markets.

This will come nearly a decade after it shelved a land-based version of the project in the southern Sokos despite government approval. A 25-year gas deal with the mainland was signed instead.

The project will help it meet new requirements for half of the city’s electricity needs to come from natural gas after 2020.

CLP, which supplies Lantau, Kowloon and the New Territories, remains tight-lipped on details such as costs and tariff implications, but said the facility would provide the city with additional sources of gas at more competitive market prices and spread out price risks.

CLP’s gas is now piped from Central Asia via the Second West-East Gas Pipeline as part of the contract with the mainland and from the depleting Yacheng gas field near Hainan. As a result,it has little bargaining power over prices.

HK Electric, which supplies Hong Kong and Lamma, obtains Australian and Qatari gas via an LNG receiving terminal in Dapeng, Shenzhen.

“If we don’t have another source…we will have to continue to buy gas from the mainland and our bargaining power will remain weak,” said CLP senior director Edward Chiu On-tin.

The offshore facility, spanning less than a hectare in size, will likely handle about 30 to 50 carriers a year. LNG transferred to the terminal will be converted back into gas and piped to Black Point Power Station in Tuen Mun for use in power generation.

While 22 such terminals are already in operation worldwide, Chiu admitted such a project would be first for Hong Kong. “We will have to consult the Town Planning Board and the Marine Department” on planning and regulation matters, Chiu said.

The company will be submitting a project brief to the Environmental Protection Department in due course.

From there, an environmental impact assessment will be conducted, which will address issues such as impacts on the planned Soko Islands and Southwest Lantau marine parks. Chiu expected “temporary impacts” during the construction phase, but did not foresee any major ecological harm in the long-run as no land reclamation was required.

Dolphin Conservation Society chairman Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu said the project did indeed have a smaller footprint than the original land-based project, but posed the same environmental challenges.

“The main facility is located in key habitat used by the finless porpoise and undersea gas pipes are likely to pass through other marine parks around Lantau.”

WWF-Hong Kong’s Samantha Lee mei-wah said regasification – a process which involves pumping seawater to heat the LNG back into gas form – could disrupt fisheries. “This freezing water is discharged and the sudden reduction in seawater temperatures can harm marine life,” she said.

CLP says other locations are being considered, but the waters east of the Soko Islands will remain a “high priority” option.

Energy Advisory Committee member Dr William Yu Yuen-ping said the facility would provide Hong Kong with cheaper gas, but would likely be an expensive fixed asset with a long payback period.

The Environment Bureau said it would review the plan upon receiving CLP’s project proposal.
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Gas unit to cut Lamma smog

Hongkong Electric will replace older generating units at Lamma Power Station with a new gas-fired combined cycle turbine unit in 2020 to reduce emissions.

Hongkong Electric will replace older generating units at Lamma Power Station with a new gas-fired combined cycle turbine unit in 2020 to reduce emissions.

The more efficient L10 unit will help HK Electric meet the stringent emission requirements set by the government to increase the proportion of natural gas generation to 50 percent by 2020.

It has signed an agreement with Mitsubishi Corporation to commission the construction of L10, which is expected to cost HK$3 billion.

Managing director Wan Chi-tin, who signed the agreement with Mitsubishi in Tokyo, said the L10 will enable a cleaner power supply while maintaining reliability.

“When L10 is commissioned in 2020, it will enable HK Electric to further reduce our carbon footprint and other emissions while maintaining power supply reliability,” he said yesterday.

L10 is cleaner and more efficient after adopting combined cycle generation technology.

The company says the technology “is one of the cleanest, most popular and efficient ways to generate electricity by fossil fuels in the world.”

It also has greater fuel efficiency through generating additional power from its steam turbine, which uses the high- temperature exhaust gas from the gas turbine.

Gas generation produces fewer emissions than other fossil fuels, reducing its environmental impact.

Meanwhile, Secretary for Environment Wong Kam-sing said the government is working to reduce the maximum return ratio of the territory’s two electric companies.

Under the Scheme of Control Agreement with the government, each of the power companies is allowed to make a capped rate of return of 9.99 percent after tax on its average net fixed assets. It will expire in 2018.

On a radio program yesterday, Wong said the government wants to increase the use of renewable energy.

He said a public consultation last year found citizens they want to reduce the return rate to between six and eight percent.

“We should not aim at the lowest ratio possible, but a balanced one,” Wong said.

Hong Kong’s two electricity suppliers can afford to be more generous with tariff cuts

Fuel prices have plunged in the past year, yet CLP and HK Electric are only reluctantly offering a 1 per cent cut in power bills

Millions of households and businesses are understandably dismayed by the announcement on Tuesday that the city’s electricity suppliers, CLP and HK Electric, will cut tariffs by a miserly 1 per cent despite the dramatic fall in fuel prices over the past year. With the two power companies still making billions of dollars in profits each year, the tariff reductions are little more than a drop in the ocean.

Equally disappointing is the government’s failure to defend consumers’ interests. Speaking at the Legislative Council economic development panel on Tuesday, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing revealed that the two companies originally only intended to freeze their tariffs. The reductions, 0.9 per cent for CLP customers and 1.1 per cent for HK Electric clients, only came after the government intervened. It is regrettable that Wong considered the outcome acceptable. He let down those who legitimately expected steeper concessions.

To those who have become used to ever-increasing energy bills in recent years, the cuts, albeit modest, are a small step in the right direction. According to the companies, the tariff levels are expected to be frozen in 2017 if fuel prices stabilise.

But whether the cuts are deep enough is open to discussion. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum have rightly questioned whether there was still room for further reductions. The actual savings for most CLP and HK Electric customers come to only HK$4.40 and HK$7.50 a month, respectively. Given fuel prices have dropped significantly and that the power giants made HK$10 billion and HK$3.2 billion in profits last year, respectively, the public is entitled to ask why the cuts cannot be deeper.

The criticisms levelled at the government are justified. Under the scheme of control agreement with the two power firms, each of them is entitled to 9.99 per cent return on investment. The guaranteed profits means officials can only seek to influence tariff adjustments. Officials did not try hard enough to push for more concessions. The cuts fall short of the expectations of lawmakers and the community.

It is difficult to see how the scheme of control can continue in its present form. The lack of competition and guarantee of handsome returns have put customers in a disadvantaged position. A public consultation on the energy market has opened the door for changes when the scheme expires in 2018. Officials should seize the opportunity to put in place a better regime.

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