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Youth vs. a Government of, by, and for the Fossil Fuel Industry

, climate accountability campaign director | March 13, 2017, 11:55 am EDT
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Last week, the Trump administration sought to short-circuit a lawsuit filed by young people seeking to hold the U.S. to account on climate change. Late on Friday night, the fossil fuel industry threw its support behind the government’s effort to block the case.

If you are having trouble distinguishing the Trump administration from major fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, you are not alone. Here are a few recent examples of the convergence between fossil fuel interests and the Trump administration.

The soundtrack of my childhood includes the “Schoolhouse Rock” version of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution—if you know the tune, feel free to hum along as you read.

Provide for the Common Defense…of Climate Inaction

In Juliana vs. United States, filed in 2015, 21 young people supported by Our Children’s Trust are seeking science-based action by the U.S. government to stabilize the climate system. In January 2016, trade associations representing the fossil fuel industry intervened on behalf of their members in support of the government’s effort to get the case dismissed. The American Petroleum Institute (API), National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) thus became named defendants in the case.

Last November, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken denied motions by the U.S. government and the fossil fuel industry to dismiss the case, recognizing that the youth have standing and allowing the case to proceed to trial.

In February, youth plaintiffs in the case released a copy of their request for documents sent to API. Among other information, the request seeks documents related to API’s communications with the Global Climate Coalition, whose members included API, NAM, and major fossil fuel companies Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell.

The UCS report The Climate Accountability Scorecard sums up how these trade associations and industry groups spread disinformation about climate science and/or seek to block climate action:

  • API is the largest oil trade association in the United States and has a long history of communicating climate science disinformation, as exemplified by the notorious internal strategy memo written by an API task force in 1998—a roadmap of the fossil fuel industry’s plan to deliberately cast doubt on the public’s understanding of climate science. The API’s online briefing on climate and energy emphasizes uncertainties in climate science.
  • NAM is the largest manufacturing trade association in the United States. It has questioned the validity of climate science and the burning of fossil fuels as the primary source of heat-trapping emissions.



The request by the youth plaintiffs is designed to establish a factual record of the role that the oil and gas industry played in government decisions over the past 50 years that led to climate change, through discovery of documents showing what API knew about a) climate change b) its likely impacts, and c) government policies that consistently failed to deal with it.

Trial is expected to take place in fall 2017, but the Trump administration has a different idea. In a motion filed last week, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys asked Judge Aiken to let a federal appeals court review her decision, and to halt the case pending the outcome of that appeal. The petition argues that preservation of documents related to climate change, energy policy, and greenhouse gas emissions is a burden on the government, which could be “irreparably harmed” by the anticipated scope of discovery in the lawsuit.

On Friday, the defendant-intervenors API, NAM, and AFPM filed a memo in support of the government’s motion to appeal.

Allowing the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry to prevent the preservation and release of documents related to climate change and climate policies would be dangerous and wrong. As litigation against the tobacco industry demonstrated years ago, such evidence is necessary for our justice system to determine whether any misconduct occurred, and for the public to hold our government and corporations accountable for their actions.

The Department of Justice has requested a ruling on its motion by Tuesday, March 14.

Promote Fossil Fuel Industry Welfare

Last week, former ExxonMobil CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had lunch with President Trump. A few hours later, the White House issued a press release that echoed, almost word-for-word, an ExxonMobil press release quoting new CEO Darren Woods that touted the company’s investments in new refining and chemical manufacturing projects on the Gulf Coast.

President Trump’s admiration for ExxonMobil is apparent, and it is mutual. Woods praised President Trump’s commitment to a “stable regulatory environment,” while the President applauded ExxonMobil for supporting his “Buy American and hire American” agenda.

And the coziness doesn’t stop with ExxonMobil. Chevron CEO John Watson said last week that he’s met with White House staff multiple times since Tillerson became Secretary of State. Watson expressed optimism about the “more pro-business environment” of the Trump administration.

In the context of this administration, “pro-business” means “pro-fossil fuels,” and “stable regulatory environment” means “regulatory rollbacks.”

Secure the Blessings of Liberty…for Fossil Fuel Companies

Former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who has long and deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, has taken the reins at the Environmental Protection Agency. Last week, Administrator Pruitt provoked a spontaneous outburst of angry phone calls with his outrageous and untrue claim that carbon dioxide doesn’t cause global warming.

In June 2016, Pruitt joined a dozen other Republican attorneys general in signing an open letter that urged their Democratic counterparts in 20 states not to investigate whether ExxonMobil misled the public and investors about climate change. The letter cited “substantial First Amendment concerns” among other issues.

More than 7,500 pages of newly published emails show that as attorney general, Pruitt forged an alliance with oil, gas and utility companies to bolster their legal challenges against Obama-era regulations that they said amounted to a “war on carbon.” In light of this evidence, it’s hard not to be cynical about Pruitt’s effort to cloak himself in the mantle of the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith has renewed his attacks on the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts, issuing new subpoenas for documents related to their investigations of ExxonMobil. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman wrote to Chairperson Smith explaining why he won’t comply with a subpoena he describes as “unprecedented and unlawful,” and Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey has also objected to the subpoena and requested that it be withdrawn.

Here’s hoping that a public spotlight on this key decision in the Juliana case will make the federal appeals court hesitate to short-circuit the legal process at the behest of the Trump administration and the oil industry. Now more than ever, we need our justice system to safeguard our children’s future over the profits of ExxonMobil and Chevron.

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  • T. Braun

    President Eisenhower warned about the power of the military-industrial complex. He understood how those with the money and power will try to increase their money and power without concern for what is right and necessary for the citizens of this country. To deny that fossil fuels cause immense detriment to the environment while taking money from the EPA and increasing military spending, even where it is not needed, boggles the mind. So, our brave soldiers will be fighting more, but will they have proper equipment for the wars? Will they be given appropriate treatment for their wounds, physical and mental? It seems the big corporations that receive vast sums of government funds for the war machine will spend that money without regard for the aftermath, i.e., death and injury for our warriors and destruction on many levels for those whom we fight. In addition, now our future generations will have the dubious honor of knowing that their environment was sold out so some billionaires can get even richer. To quote President Trump, “Sad.”