Democratic Attorneys General Refuse to Join Rockefeller-Backed Climate Investigation

A press conference today featuring Al Gore and more than a dozen state attorneys general was expected to reveal new state-level investigations of U.S. energy companies regarding climate change. But the vast majority of AGs standing on stage refused to join such an effort, signaling a lack of interest in wasting their own states’ resources.

Last year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he had launched an investigation into fossil fuel companies regarding what the New York Times called “possible climate change lies.” The investigation was based entirely on a series of controversial articles written by researchers at the Columbia School of Journalism and InsideClimate News, which selectively pulled statements from company documents to suggest Exxon Mobil’s public policy advocacy was inconsistent with its own research.

Unsurprisingly, environmental activists embraced the articles, and even began an online campaign – complete with the hash tag #ExxonKnew on Twitter – to pressure state and federal officials to launch investigations into so-called “climate denial.” To date, they have succeeded in convincing Schneiderman as well as the attorneys general for California and Massachusetts.

But Democratic attorneys general from New Mexico, Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Maine, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, and Vermont – all of whom stood on the stage next to Al Gore today – refused to announce that they would be launching their own investigations. In fact, reporters covering the event struggled to find much of anything new in what the officials were promising. The Huffington Post even conceded that the AGs “were vague on what exactly they have planned.”

Editorial boards across the country have criticized the #ExxonKnew campaign as an attempt to “stamp out all disagreement,” while also worrying about the legal precedent of pursuing “criminal penalties over those involved in a scientific debate.” An editorial from Bloomberg News called Schneiderman’s investigation a “dangerous arrogation of power.”

Legal experts have also questioned the merits of New York’s investigation. John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University, told the New York Times that a “leading obstacle [to a conviction] would be the First Amendment, as climate change is a matter of robust public debate.”

Paying for Media, Policy Outcomes

Although Schneiderman’s office contends the investigation is based on allegations of “fraud,” one of the groups who funded the research underpinning Schneiderman’s investigation – the Rockefeller Family Fund – admitted last week that their funding of non-profit news entities, including Columbia and InsideClimate News, was geared toward achieving “better climate policy.”

According to Reuters:

Rockefeller Family Fund Director Lee Wasserman said Exxon was not singled out when it granted about $25,000 to InsideClimate News.

“We supported public interest journalism to better understand how the fossil fuel industry was dealing with the reality of climate science internally and publicly,” Wasserman said. “No specific company was targeted in our push to drive better public understanding and better climate policy.”

Other funding for Columbia and InsideClimate News came from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which finances environmental advocacy groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club. Columbia and InsideClimate News have repeatedly denied that the Rockefeller funding had any influence over their work.

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