Originally published in The Intercept on December 12, 2019.
The lawyer who defended Exxon Mobil against a lawsuit brought by New York’s attorney general accusing the oil giant of misleading investors on climate change is a prominent Democratic donor who has given more than half a million dollars to Democrats over the last 30 years.
Ted Wells Jr., a partner and co-chair of the litigation department at the New York firm Paul, Weiss, was Exxon’s lead attorney in the case that concluded on Tuesday, when a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that the attorney general failed to show that the oil company broke the law.
The high-profile Exxon lawsuit is one of more than a dozen cases brought by state and local governments against fossil fuel companies, with plaintiffs seeking to hold corporations financially liable for their role in perpetuating the climate crisis — and just the second of these cases to go to trial. Over the last few months, students at Harvard Law School have been mobilizing around Wells’s involvement in the Exxon lawsuit, as he is one of the 13 members of the Harvard Corporation, which consults with the university president to decide whether to pursue fossil fuel divestment. A university spokesperson told the Harvard Crimson that Wells recused himself from discussions or votes on divestment once he began representing the oil company. Wells did not return requests for comment.
“By sitting on this board, Ted Wells can provide cover, and does provide cover, for the fossil fuel industry,” said Isa Flores-Jones, a recent Harvard graduate who is now active with the Sunrise Movement.
Attorneys like Wells and their law firms that represent fossil fuel interests while also contributing to Democrats and other liberal causes have been drawing increasing scrutiny from environmental activists who are calling on the Democratic Party to distance itself from the fossil fuel industry, either by swearing off donations from executives and lobbyists or by divesting from these companies.
The No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, which launched in July 2017, is a cornerstone of that strategy. By taking the pledge, a politician and their campaign promises to not knowingly accept any contribution over $200 from the political action committees, lobbyists, or Securities and Exchange Commission-named executives of fossil fuel companies.
“We are targeting the very top people at a company, the top donors,” said Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at the climate advocacy group Oil Change International. “We firmly believe that the symbolic act of taking the pledge and publicly saying no is one of the real pieces we need. It changes your policy view and starts to change the political calculus to make [fossil fuels] less socially acceptable.” Lawyers who represent fossil fuel companies are not currently included in the pledge.
Beyond Wells, students have been thinking about how to pressure liberal firms that entangle themselves in the climate crisis. “We’re putting a plan together to organize around when these firms come to campus to recruit early next year,” said Aaron Regunberg, a Harvard law school student.
Kurt Walters, another Harvard law school student involved with these organizing efforts, said it was a surprise for him when he arrived on campus to see how taboo it was to criticize people for who they take on as legal clients.
“It’s been pretty shocking to me the way it’s all been so dominated by respectability politics, where criticizing people for doing bad things is seen as inappropriate,” he said. “Part of it is people who want to believe that going to a firm where you can make $190,000 in a year can still be somehow acceptable.”
Environmental activists’ push to get politicians to refuse money from the fossil fuel industry is rooted in recent political science research that found that the more congressional staff met with oil and gas groups, the more likely they were to underestimate public support for climate action. And the more financial contributions politicians received from the fossil fuel lobby, the less those politicians believed that the public really wanted to see bold change.
In the 2020 campaign, all Democratic presidential candidates have signed on to the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge with the exception of the recent entrants, Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg.
Despite this traction, the Democratic National Committee has continued to resist pressure from activists over banning corporate donations from oil and gas. In June 2018, the national party committee passed a resolution pledging to reject campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, yet two months later, it effectively reversed course, passing a new resolution inviting contributions from not just fossil fuel workers, but also “their unions’ or employers’ political action committees.” While the second resolution was cast as a labor-friendly measure, activists noted that energy workers and their unions had been free to donate to Democrats under the first proposal.
Beyond organizing resistance to fossil fuel industry leaders, activists have begun paying closer attention to individuals and institutions with ties to the fossil fuel industry, even if they don’t work directly within the industry itself. These advocates have been urging leaders to be similarly suspicious of how corporate and financial connections to fossil fuels may distort or influence political decision-making.
For example, in September on the campaign trail, a 24-year-old activist with the Sunrise Movement asked Joe Biden in Iowa about his climate adviser, Heather Zichal, who earned $1 million from serving on the board of liquified natural gas company, Cheniere Energy. (Biden patted the Sunrise activist’s hand, ignored her question, and said, “Thank you for being … for admiring me so much.”)
And then there are the attorneys like Wells, who donated $100,000 to Priorities USA Action, the top Democratic Super PAC in 2012, and has given more than $135,000 to the DNC over the last three decades. His law firm, Paul, Weiss, similarly donated $1.9 million to Democratic candidates in the 2018 cycle and has already donated over $740,000 this cycle.
During a nearly three-week civil trial in November, Wells defended Exxon against New York’s claims that the company had misled shareholders by hiding pertinent information about how it was managing the risk of climate change and environmental regulations. In the 55-page opinion issued Thursday, New York State Supreme Court Justice Barry Ostrager accepted Wells and co-counsel’s arguments that Exxon had sufficiently developed a method for dealing with future climate change costs and that its statements to shareholders about those future costs were not deceptive. The judge called the attorney general’s securities fraud complaint against Exxon “hyperbolic” and said that while nothing in his judgment is meant to absolve Exxon of responsibility for contributing to climate change, the AG failed to prove that the oil company “made any material representations [to shareholders] that would have been viewed by a reasonable investor as having significantly altered the ‘total mix’ of information available.”
The lead attorney for Chevron in another spate of recent climate liability lawsuits, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., is also a prominent Democratic donor. A partner in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Boutrous also regularly represents media organizations and reporters in First Amendment cases and has recently been representing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients on a pro bono legal team.
In an interview with The Intercept, Boutrous defended his Chevron representation. “It’s very easy for me to fight these lawsuits tooth and nail because I think they’re counterproductive and just make no sense from a policy standpoint and legal perspective,” he said, adding that it’s not “a proper use of lawsuits to bring cases that are completely baseless as a platform to debate public issues; that’s not really what we should be using the courts for.”
Boutrous has given tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and causes, but argued that political contributions have exaggerated influence on policymaking. Echoing a position shared by many prominent Democratic leaders, he said that taking a hard line against fossil fuel companies could interfere with making progress on tackling the climate crisis. “The fallacy at the root of the lawsuit is that somehow punishing and singling out oil and gas companies is needed, when we need to cope with the fact that we still need this energy. And while we can look for alternative sources of energy [and] technological solutions, one of the best sources for this would be these very companies,” he said, adding that Chevron both “accepts” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings and supports U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement. Advocates of partnering with energy companies point to the rapid growth of wind and solar, which has proliferated largely because it’s become profitable enough to do so.
Boutrous, who also successfully represented auto companies when California sued auto manufacturers to demand that they pay for the environmental damage caused by the emissions of their vehicles, argued at length that corporations could be held to account for being socially responsible without, as he put it, being demonized by the Democratic Party. He emphasized his commitment to tackling climate change, but raised particular criticism with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in September said he’d consider criminally prosecuting fossil fuel executives. Boutrous called Sanders’s position “so wrongheaded.”
Despite evidence to the contrary, Boutrous also insisted that the fear of money’s corrupting influence on politics is exaggerated.
“I think it’s really overrated the influence that corporations and money have over politicians,” he said. “If you look at all the people who have the right to vote and don’t vote, and sometimes the votes are suppressed, but if you look at all those people, that is an enormous political force. So before we say it’s just money in politics that’s causing the problem, we all need to take responsibility for making sure our voices are heard. The people of the United States need to take responsibility for our country, our climate, and we need to stop blaming everything on too much money.”
The debate over how fossil fuel money influences climate policy has been playing out on college campuses like Harvard, where students have been mobilizing since 2012 to get their university to divest from companies that support fossil fuels. Increasingly, students there have been drawing attention to the fact that four members on the Harvard Corporation have ties to the fossil fuel industry. Their goal is to get the entire corporation to commit to divestment by Earth Day 2020.
Ilana Cohen, a Harvard undergraduate and leader with her campus’s divestment movement, said her group launched a semesterlong effort at the beginning of the school year to teach students about the ties of these board members. They’ve been publishing information on their website, launching social media campaigns, and hanging up posters around campus. “We’ve worked really concretely to amplify the absurdity of having the attorney for Exxon on that board,” she said.
Flores-Jones, the recent Harvard graduate, compared it to how fossil fuel companies fund various types of university research and donate large sums of money for new fancy campus buildings, sometimes even named after them.
In 2007, Harvard’s Dean of the Kennedy School of Government announced the acceptance of a five-year, $3.75 million donation from Shell to “enhance and expand University research efforts on critical issues of energy policy.” This year MIT announced that it would be renaming a building where students study climate science the “Shell Auditorium,” after the oil company donated $3 million.
“Like politicians who are cast as ‘pragmatic’ for saying we need a carbon-neutral transition by 2050, Harvard is similarly being played for a fool by these companies,” Flores-Jones said. “It’s these swinging doors of having the credibility to be able to sit on the Harvard Corporation, and be associated with Harvard, while then defending the reputations of these companies.”
Walters, the law school student, said his goal is to continue in his field what began during the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court last year.
“Some people in the legal industry were playing by the old rules, even Democrats and people who believe sexual assault is bad,” he said. “You had them saying, ‘But this Kavanaugh guy, he’s so smart, let’s just approve him.’ Meanwhile, there were huge walkouts with hundreds of students. And so what we’re trying to do is continue to blow up that norm that says it’s more important to be friendly, than to call out people who do bad things.”