Activists plan to make a public stand at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting May 25, where several resolutions intended to force the company into acknowledging the climate threat will come to a vote. | Getty
On Nov. 3, ExxonMobil dispatched its top lobbyists to Capitol Hill on an urgent mission — tamping down an escalating campaign aimed at making the country’s largest oil company pay a legal and political price for its role in warming the planet.
The meeting marked a striking shift in Exxon’s handling of the controversy. The notion of holding oil companies responsible for global warming, in the same way tobacco companies had to pay billions of dollars in damages over the health effects of cigarettes, had long been seen as a quixotic quest led by scruffy, oil-hating extremists. But POLITICO’s interviews with dozens of activists, industry officials and lawmakers suggest that support for a legal crusade against Exxon is growing far beyond the political fringe — and now poses the biggest existential threat the company has faced in decades.
Just five days before the meeting on Capitol Hill, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton had urged the Justice Department to investigate whether the petroleum giant spent decades deceiving the public about the threat of climate change. State attorneys general had Exxon in their sights as well, preparing to issue subpoenas that would eventually rope in virtually all of Washington’s conservative policy apparatus. A four-year effort by green activists, scientists and lawyers to turn Big Oil’s biggest player into the poster child for climate change — deliberately patterned after the successful campaign to take down tobacco — was shaking the descendant of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire to its core.
So the four Exxon executives arrived at the office of California Democrat Rep. Ted Lieu with one job: convincing four of their most vocal congressional critics that the company wasn’t the polluting villain its enemies were making it out to be.
Exxon supports “sound climate policy” and has tripled its greenhouse-gas cuts since 2008, the executives boasted to the lawmakers in a 10-page glossy presentation, later obtained by POLITICO. Exxon was even on record in favor of a tax on carbon emissions — a climate remedy more radical than anything President Barack Obama has proposed.
The company left empty-handed, though, after refusing to directly answer questions about whether it had suppressed internal research that underscored the threat of climate change while publicly sowing doubt about climate science, according to people in the room.
The presentation made at least one thing clear, however: After years of shrugging off pressure from eco-activists, Exxon was showing signs of worry.
And Exxon wasn’t the only one with reasons to be nervous.
Interviews with advocates on both sides of the feud reveal how quickly the anti-Exxon movement has sprouted, to the point that it’s now consuming op-ed pages, airwaves and courtrooms across the country. Once merely intent on shaming the oil giant into better behavior, environmentalists are pursuing a strategy to discredit the company, weaken it politically and perhaps make it pay the kinds of multibillion-dollar legal settlements that began hitting the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
The campaign — led by some of the same climate activists who defied Beltway wisdom by killing the Keystone XL oil pipeline — has mushroomed into far more than a greens-versus-Exxon feud.
Just last week, a leaked subpoena from the attorney general in the U.S. Virgin Islands revealed a vast probe that demanded Exxon’s communications with more than 100 free-market think tanks, conservative consulting firms and climate-skeptic scientists — proof, the company’s supporters say, that environmentalists are using the legal system to launch a broad attack on their political opponents. The subpoena targets Exxon’s dealings with parties including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Hoover Institution, George Mason University and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Alabama and the University of Delaware.
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