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ExxonMobil Plans to Sue Climate-Impacted Communities

By Jan Lee

There's a benefit to being a big oil company and owning property in the third-most populous county in oil-rich Texas: When you speak out, people listen. More importantly, they then report the news.

ExxonMobil has asked the Tarrant County District Court, in Fort Worth, to permit the oil company to challenge a variety of high-ranking government officials about their roles in suing oil and gas companies. The company also wants to question a Hagens Berman lawyer which it says had a part to play in crafting the thinking behind the suits.

The 61-page request for depositions reflects ExxonMobil's exhaustive research into various communities' efforts to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for climate change. Interestingly though, its focus isn't in countering the states, cities' and counties' accusations, but in reorienting the debate in the courts.

The petition alleges that the 16 officials named in the deposition request were actually "opportunistic politicians" who colluded in an attempt to "stifle ExxonMobil's exercise, in Texas, of its First Amendment right to participate in the national dialogue about climate change and climate policy."

These individuals, Exxon told the court, "are abusing law enforcement authority and legal process to impose their viewpoint on climate change," actions, the plaintiff alleges, places ExxonMobil "directly in that conspiracy’s crosshairs.

"Even though it has long acknowledged the risks presented by climate change, supported the Paris climate accords, and backed a revenue-neutral carbon tax, ExxonMobil has nevertheless been targeted by state and local governments for pretextual investigations and litigation intended to cleanse the public square of alternative viewpoints."

According to ExxonMobil, the lawsuits that have emerged in recent years on the part of California, Massachusetts and New York communities were actually a coordinated effort that it calls the "La Jolla playbook," named after a climate accountability workshop that took place in La Jolla, Calif in 2012. The intent of the workshop was to review some of the lessons that communities learned during the decades-long effort to hold tobacco companies accountable for healthcare costs and deaths.

But according to the request, the La Jolla workshop was an effort to find ways to force "the targets" (the oil companies) to go along with uniform views on global warming.

The substance of the petition hinges on ExxonMobil's deep research into the personal lives and job responsibilities of the 16 public officials. It included public documents to allege that the officials share responsibility for failing to disclose the same sense of urgency about climate risks to their own communities and shareholders.

"The stark and irreconcilable conflict between what these municipal governments alleged in their respective complaints and what they disclosed to investors in their bond offerings indicates that the allegations in the complaints are not honestly held and were not made in good faith.”

The news that Exxon planned to challenge government officials preempted another legal announcement last week: that the City of New York  was joining the battle to sue Big Oil. The city is the latest public entity to allege that ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and other oil and gas had the knowledge and technology to anticipate that their businesses would impact global climate conditions as early as the 1980s. The suits also allege that Exxon may have concealed some data from stockholders that would have revealed the negative impacts of the company's high-carbon emissions.

Exxon has deflected the latest challenge, asserting that federal courts aren't the arena in which climate change will be solved.

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and action,” Scott Silvestri, spokesman for ExxonMobil said last week.

But what about when businesses fail to take action in response to such calls for action? That's the issue that is now being raised by New York City and other communities, which allege companies that don't address their potential for high-carbon emissions are effectively creating opportunities for trespass and destruction of properties from a known threat: climate change. The litigants allege that companies should then be held accountable for damages.

ExxonMobil: When is a good time to act?

Exxon's allegations that government officials colluded by attending a workshop about previous environmental and social lawsuits raises some interesting questions about the role of public officials. Communities expect their representatives to stay informed, connected and experienced when it comes to addressing potential threats against their homes and cities. And taxpayers expect them to remain active and vigilant in those efforts, as well.

Businesses -- including oil companies -- have learned that there is a benefit to sharing information and coalescing effort. Governments have too, especially when it comes to building action against today's greatest environmental threat.

So it isn't surprising that ExxonMobil has focused its efforts on a  selection of government staff members who may have a broad-based role in addressing accountability in their communities. The actual issue that is at stake -- climate change and the environmental dangers that are part of the broader dialogue Exxon has referenced -- aren't really being addressed however, when officials are made to defend their reputations.

But the petition also raises a question about how and when we expect governments and businesses to take a stand. According to Exxon, if climate impacts are pressing enough a topic for litigation, it should be included in public entity's investment disclosures. And it should paint a line for those same government officials when it comes to their own stock purchases. According to the Times Union, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's investment in an asset company whose top Energy ETF holding was ExxonMobil was duplicitous.

But aren't those investments suggestive of the very dialogue that oil companies say they want? Investors buy shares for many reasons, and as we have reported in the past, one is to effect change in a company, an industry or their ideals. It's that same ambition for change that in recent years has led to numerous lawsuits against corporations that have resisted that call for downsizing in the carbon-based energy sector.

Still, the latest shot across the bow by ExxonMobil highlights the need for governments with to be mindful of how their actions are perceived, especially when it comes to how it is presented before the courts. It's a lesson that Exxon, with its decades of data on the destructive impact of carbon emissions, is realizing as well.


Flickr image: Mike Mozart


Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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