Citing “targeted attacks” on environmental NGOs under former CEO Rex Tillerson’s leadership, a research scholar on business and human rights says she will no longer serve as an advisor with ExxonMobil.
Sarah Labowitz, who co-founded the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights with Michael Posner in 2013, told the Huffington Post that the company’s response to public criticism pushed her cut to any ties with ExxonMobil.
In a letter sent to Ben Soraci, president of the Exxon Foundation, Labowitz said ExxonMobil’s litigation strategy “undermines the democratic principles of our society and the vital role that civil society plays in it.”
The highly public spat comes at a time when Exxon is responding to accusations that it covered up the work of some of its own scientists, who concluded over 30 years ago that the company’s operations were contributing to climate change risks. The controversy prompted some state attorneys general to launch investigations into the company, most notably the state justice departments of New York and Massachusetts.
The energy giant in turn responded with its own litigation, which ironically accuses the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general of leading “improper and politically motivated investigations of ExxonMobil in a coordinated effort to silence and intimidate one side of the public policy debate on how to address climate change.”
The company’s aggressive lawsuits have in part motivated one if its financial beneficiaries in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Last year Lamar Smith, chair of the House science committee, launched what NGOs described as a climate science “witch hunt.” And last week Smith held a hearing to discuss how to “make the EPA great again” as the Texas Republican continues to attack the work of environmental organizations and government scientists. Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) started its own investigation of ExxonMobil over accusations the company withheld material information from its shareholders.
In interviews with both the Huffington Post and Motherboard, Labowitz accused ExxonMobil’s executives and attorneys of engaging in behavior that “is what you see in countries where the government tries to suppress human rights.” She told Ben Adler of Motherboard in a phone call that the company “defines conspiracy as routine advocacy, like holding meetings with government officials.”
ExxonMobil maintains that attorneys general are conspiring with NGOs to restrict debate when it comes to climate change. In an amended court filing the company submitted to a federal court in Fort Worth, Texas, last November, ExxonMobil’s attorneys said public officials such as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman “advocated for restrictions on speech and debate to accomplish that political agenda.”
From her perspective, Labowitz insisted ExxonMobil executives were once open-minded whenever she had the opportunity to discuss human rights issues with them. But over the past year, Labowitz claimed such discourse became less and less the case. While she said many at ExxonMobil have integrity and are respectful of science, she expressed disappointment in her letter to Soraci, writing that “instead of examining its own record and seeking to restore a respected place for itself in the public debate, Exxon has chosen to turn up the temperature on civil society groups.”
Meanwhile, Tillerson, who is now U.S. Secretary of State, has appeared to wash his hands of the matter. During his confirmation hearings, when he was asked about how much ExxonMobil knew about climate change, Tillerson responded: “Since I’m no longer with ExxonMobil, I can’t speak on their behalf. The question would have to be put to ExxonMobil.”
And while Tillerson and the company indicated in the past that they are open to a carbon tax and acknowledge the science behind manmade climate change, the company has been accused of spending millions to fund climate denier groups.
For now, the oil and gas giant offers a veneer that business is going on as usual. And Labowitz, who was affiliated with ExxonMobil since 2014, is still listed as a member of the company’s External Citizenship Advisory Panel as of press time.
Image credit: Minale Tattersfield
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.