This week, the left-wing magazine The Nation contributed what it likely viewed as a meaningful addition to an ongoing political battle against the oil and natural gas industry. But even a cursory review reveals that the article was little more than a lazy attempt to defend the fledgling #ExxonKnew campaign and downplay the growing chorus of its critics.
The article was written as if the author, Zoe Carpenter, was simply reporting on a largely ignored forum called “Oil Is The New Tobacco.” But the coverage soon turned into Ms. Carpenter’s best effort to fact check, which is where she committed the journalistic equivalent of stepping on a rake – multiple times.
Let’s take a closer look at the errors, oversights, and downright absurdities that somehow passed muster with The Nation’s editors.
The Nation: “Exxon has tried to distract from its checkered history, insisting that inquiries are an affront to free speech.”
The Facts: Legal experts and newspaper editorial boards from across the political spectrum have raised First Amendment concerns with the #ExxonKnew campaign, none of which are mentioned by Ms. Carpenter.
For example, Philip Hamburger – a law professor at Columbia University – recently wrote that New York’s investigation of Exxon is “a prosecutorial threat to liberty and due process.” Brooklyn Law School professor James Fanto told Bloomberg News that the investigation seems “completely politically motivated.”
In a separate editorial, Bloomberg News called the investigation a “dangerous arrogation of power.” The Washington Post has expressed concern about the legal precedent of pursuing “criminal penalties over those involved in a scientific debate.” The Wall Street Journal believes the investigations are an attempt to “stamp out all disagreement.”
Certainly, The Nation is rooting for the success of #ExxonKnew, so it’s understandable that Ms. Carpenter would pretend that only Exxon is protesting the investigations. But deliberately omitting the myriad voices that are pushing back only accentuates the bias in Ms. Carpenter’s work.
The Nation: “Exxon became a major funder of the institute and other denial groups in the 1990s, and played a ‘leading’ role in the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group created ‘with a specific goal of preventing the US Congress from signing the Kyoto protocol,’ Oreskes recounted.”
The Facts: The U.S. Senate rejected the Kyoto protocol 98 to zero, and it wasn’t because of “climate denial” as The Nation and Ms. Oreskes would have us believe. The agreement would have exempted major emitters like China and India, which meant the United States would have been placing itself at a competitive disadvantage with foreign competitors. In 2001, President George W. Bush even recognized the “long-term goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere,” but said he – and clearly many others! – opposed Kyoto because it failed to address rising emissions in the developing world.
Another “inconvenient truth” for The Nation: the United States currently leads the world in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to abundant supplies of natural gas. And who is the largest natural gas producer in the United States? Exxon Mobil.
The Nation: “While Exxon claims it’s stopped funded [sic] such groups, Oreskes pointed out that it’s still a member of three trade associations that advocate against climate action: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Chamber of Commerce, and the American Petroleum Institute.”
The Facts: Naomi Oreskes (and Ms. Carpenter, who repeated the claims without scrutiny) is conflating policy differences with science denial. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and ALEC, for example, advocate for legal reform and changes to the federal tax system. Is supporting a lower corporate tax rate now considered climate denial? Those pushing #ExxonKnew may genuinely believe so. After all, the campaign’s backers have also alleged that television ads promoting the use of solar power should be considered climate denial, simply because an energy company produced them.
It is true that some of the groups named have opposed certain climate policies, including cap and trade. But then again, so has Greenpeace.
The Nation: “The forum adds to the pressure Exxon is already under from the 17 state attorneys general who’ve opened investigations into whether the company deliberately misled investors about the risks of climate change.”
The Facts: Only two states (and one territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands) have actually launched formal investigations. Emails show that participants in the event that brought together the above-mentioned AGs had stressed that “not all of the states have yet opened a formal investigation.” The Vermont Attorney General’s office even noted that “there is some sensitivity here (and I suspect in some other states) to saying or indicating we have” opened an investigation. In other words, several of the AGs were unwilling to align themselves with a formal investigation of Exxon.
Even Bill McKibben admitted just this week that “only two states” are investigating Exxon (New York and Massachusetts), adding that “California has said it’s investigating, too, but so far hasn’t told the company to hand over any documents.”
The Nation: “‘The fossil-fuel industry’s concerted effort to confuse the public on the certainty of climate science is endangering nearly everyone on this planet, born and yet to be born, all for one simple reason: money,’ Representative Keith Ellison, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, said at the beginning of the forum.”
The Facts: One of Rep. Ellison’s largest campaign contributors is Soros Fund Management, which has millions of dollars’ worth of investments in the same “fossil-fuel industry” that the congressman is attacking. It would take only a few seconds of searching online for a legitimate journalist to discover that nugget of amazing hypocrisy. But, as we now know, we’re not talking about journalism here.
As for Exxon and “confusing the public,” do Rep. Ellison and Ms. Carpenter both view the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as an organization trying to “confuse the public” about global warming? Scientists from Exxon have publicly helped the IPCC craft its reports, which have articulated the risks of climate change for years.
The Nation: “Natasha Lamb of Arjun Capital…argued that climate change is ‘the biggest business risk Exxon faces this century,’ citing a recent Citibank analysis which concluded that meeting the goals set at the Paris climate conference would require $100 trillion of fossil fuel assets to be left in the ground. While Exxon proceeds with business as usual, its debt level has more than doubled.”
The Facts: Parties agreed to the Paris climate agreement in December 2015, more than a month after New York launched the first investigation into Exxon, and several years after environmental groups began their campaign to convince state governments to engage in such activities. Using an event that occurred after an investigation began to justify the investigation is a curious maneuver, to say the least.
Moreover, many companies that produce oil and natural gas are struggling currently. But that has nothing to do with climate change, and everything to do with an oversupply in the market. A report from Arjun Capital last fall even acknowledged those conditions.
Curiously, Ms. Lamb is later quoted as saying that Exxon “must shift from a growth plan to one focused on value,” and that it must “shrink profitably.” Once again, a scrutinizing reporter could have pointed out that a company’s value is directly tied to its ability to grow and be profitable. Or maybe Ms. Carpenter could have observed that Arjun Capital’s own website touts “our exceptional growth” in describing its value to clients. It’s also worth noting that Arjun is hardly an unbiased observer, as its team consists of individuals whose backgrounds are in green energy investments.
The Nation: “In response to the congressional and legal scrutiny, Exxon and its allies have tried to change the topic, claiming that the company’s right to free speech is under attack. (In fact, the AGs aren’t investigating Exxon for its political speech, but for lying to investors—those are very different things, from a legal standpoint.)”
The Facts: Before creating an “in fact” parenthetical about legal matters, Ms. Carpenter would have done well to speak to actual legal experts. John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University, told the New York Times last year that a “leading obstacle [to a conviction] would be the First Amendment, as climate change is a matter of robust public debate.”
Other legal experts, many of whom are concerned about the impacts of climate change, worry that this “fraud” investigation is over the top. Tristan Brown, a lawyer and assistant professor of Energy Resource Economics at The State University of New York, said that the AGs involved are using an “unprecedented definition of fraud,” which he believes “threatens to impose an undue and possibly unachievable regulatory burden on energy firms and their investors.”
The former head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts has called the #ExxonKnew investigation “outrageous” and “pure harassment,” which is intended to “shut up the other side” of the debate.
But hey, what do all of those people know about the First Amendment anyway?
The Nation: “Late last week, the Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, Lamar Alexander, reissued a demand to the state attorneys general, along with several nonprofit groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists, that they turn over documents and communications related to their investigations of the oil company. Alexander claims the state investigations may ‘infringe on the civil rights of scientists’—a remarkably rich statement coming from Alexander, who spent nearly a year harassing scientists at NOAA whose research conclusions were inconvenient for him.”
The Facts: Lamar Smith chairs the House Science Committee, not Lamar Alexander, the latter of whom is actually a U.S. Senator from Tennessee.
More importantly, Chairman Smith’s requests involved researchers who work for a governmental institution. Regardless of the merits of the specific inquiries, Congress does have an obligation to provide oversight of the agencies that it funds with taxpayer dollars.
The institutions targeted by the state attorneys general, however, include non-profit organizations and other non-governmental entities. Even though the stated purpose of the investigation is to determine whether Exxon “lied to investors,” the investigations include think tanks and other groups that Exxon has never even funded.
Earlier this week, Bill McKibben – a central character in the #ExxonKnew saga – penned a defensive op-ed in the New York Daily News, where he had to admit that the campaign had stalled. “Exxon is not really facing a blitzkrieg,” McKibben wrote, before rambling off a litany of talking points that he and groups like InsideClimate News have spent months plastering on social media and various websites.
Ms. Carpenter’s latest piece in The Nation was no different. It was not an attempt to reveal anything new (the campaign has largely been recycling the same talking points since at least last fall), but rather a desperate attempt to defend #ExxonKnew from people who are growing ever more skeptical of the effort and its threat to free speech.
Ms. Carpenter’s article was entitled “Democrats to Exxon: Stop Trying to Change the Conversation.” Considering how the #ExxonKnew campaign is unraveling as experts raise legitimate First Amendment concerns, it’s not a surprising request.