Behind the Curtain: ExxonMobil and Peabody’s Climate Change Deception Game Plan

June 16, 2016
Angela Anderson
Director, Climate and Energy Program

‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,’ the Wizard of Oz famously said just as he was about to be exposed as a fraud.

The fossil fuel companies that have supported and promoted fraudulent science for years have been exposed, too, and are now at a crossroads. The Wizard changed his ways and became a hero. Will these companies do the same? It doesn’t look like it.

In addition to selling oil and coal, these companies have been selling climate denial and funding disinformation about science and clean energy to perpetuate a market for their products, which they have long known were causing dangerous levels of warming that is now resulting in sea level rise, extreme precipitation, heat and more intense storms.

As UCS, investigative journalists, history scholars, nongovernmental organizations, and the chief law enforcement officials in several states unearth damning evidence of the massive climate science deception campaign developed by fossil energy companies, a well-coordinated counter-offensive is unfolding before our eyes.

Behind the smoke, mirrors and hot air, ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy have been the wizards of the fossil fuel industry. They have been orchestrating a climate denial machine for decades.

The release of Peabody bankruptcy documents yesterday gives some insight into the vast denial network. Bankruptcy has forced Peabody to disclose its funding of many of the same agents of climate disinformation that ExxonMobil backed over the years. For example, Peabody’s bankruptcy filings list Arthur G. Randol III as a creditor. Randol is a former ExxonMobil operative who, in 1998, contributed to the development of the American Petroleum Institute’s plan to manufacture uncertainty about climate science and make climate change a “non-issue.” In more recent years, Randol has played a role in industry attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency’s science-based endangerment finding for heat-trapping emissions and the Clean Power Plan.

As that machine—and indeed the entire business model of the fossil fuel industry begins to crumble—companies like ExxonMobil are now hiding behind political allies to assert bogus First Amendment claims, help squelch investigations, and attempt to intimidate advocates.

  • Last month, 13 members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, led by Chairman Lamar Smith, sent letters to AGs investigating ExxonMobil and several NGOs—including UCS—to demand we turn over correspondence related to our attempts to hold oil, gas and coal companies accountable for deception. The letter claimed it was investigating violations of the companies’ First Amendment rights. In a blog, UCS President Ken Kimmel outlined how the committee’s request turns the First Amendment on its head, attempting to protect fraudulent speech while seeking to restrict the right of citizens to meet with or write to public officials, attend public hearings, and associate or share information with other people or organizations.
  • Yesterday, ExxonMobil asked a federal court to block Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s attempts to find out whether the company misled investors and consumers about the risks of climate change. Healey’s subpoena would require the company to produce more than 40 years of documents relating to climate research and investor communications. Exxon’s request for an injunction says the probe is a politically motivated fishing expedition that would violate corporate free speech if it’s allowed to proceed. “Our investigation is based, not on speculation, but on inconsistencies about climate change in Exxon documents which have been made public,” the AG’s office said in a statement. “The First Amendment does not protect false and and misleading statements in the marketplace. Exxon’s assertion that we cannot investigate it because the company has not engaged in business here in Massachusetts is completely preposterous.” In a statement, UCS President Ken Kimmel asserted that the First Amendment does not protect fraud and that the wealth of evidence of ExxonMobil’s decades-long deception campaign, which continues today, more than warrants investigation by Attorney General Healey into whether state laws have been violated.
  • The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank with a long record of pushing climate science denial (see here and here) held a press conference today where they re-iterated the same tired and misleading points made in Rep. Smith’s letter.
  • Today, 13 attorneys general—all part of a group of states challenging the Clean Power Plan in court—were the latest to come to the defense of the fossil fuel Oz. They referred to investigations of ExxonMobil as an attempt to ‘police speech.’ Their letter went on to speculate that the result of the New York, California, Massachusetts and US Virgin Islands AGs’ investigations would be investigations by other AGs into clean energy companies for ‘funding non profits who exaggerated the risk of climate change.’ Their speculation about a ‘barrage of subpoenas’ could be perceived as a thinly veiled threat of retaliation, especially in light of the financial connections these AG’s have with the oil industry.

What does tomorrow hold? It’s hard to tell. The targets of Rep. Smith’s investigation declined to respond to his requests citing his lack of jurisdiction and the violation of our First Amendment rights. But Rep. Smith has demonstrated his willingness to use the subpoena power of his office, so it is likely that we have not reached the end of this particular yellow brick road.

We often look to the parallels with the tobacco industry’s tactics to give us some insights into what to expect next from the fossil fuel industry. What we are learning now is that, while there are similarities, the fossil fuel industry is writing a whole new playbook.

And it is not likely to end with the Wizard sending us safely into the future in a low carbon hot-air balloon.

Posted in: Climate Change, Energy

About the author

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Angela Ledford Anderson leads UCS's efforts to persuade government officials to enact policies that encourage clean energy and result in global warming emission reductions. Ms. Anderson advocates on international policy responses to the threat of global climate change.