Environmental Activists Target Exxon’s Lead Attorney In Climate Liability Case, A Prominent Democratic Donor

Originally published in The Intercept on December 12, 2019.
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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.”

Maine AFL-CIO Becomes First State Federation to Support a Green New Deal Bill

Originally published in In These Times on April 22, 2019.
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On Tuesday, Maine lawmakers will hold a hearing for “An Act to Establish a Green New Deal for Maine”—a new climate and jobs bill that has the notable support of Maine’s AFL-CIO, the first state labor federation to endorse a Green New Deal-themed piece of legislation. The bill calls for 80 percent renewable electricity consumption by 2040, solar power for public schools, the creation of a task force to study economic and job growth, and a commission to help facilitate a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Its backing from a coalition of over 160 labor unions offers an instructive lesson for other states looking to build union power to tackle a warming planet.

The bill is the brainchild of Chloe Maxmin, a 26-year-old state lawmaker elected in November, and the first Democrat to ever represent her district. Maxmin, who has been an environmental activist since she was 12 years old, and co-founded the Harvard fossil fuel divestment campaign while in college, said she knew if she was voted into office she would approach climate politics in a different way.

One of the criticisms of the national Green New Resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is that it lacked a broad coalition of supporters when it was first introduced. But Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s political strategy, they’ve explained, is to use the aspirational framework as an organizing tool over the next two years, to bring more key partners on board.

Maxmin, by contrast, sought to bring allies into her coalition prior to going public with the legislation, and Maine labor and environmental groups did not have a deep history of working together before. “I’ve been an organizer for a long time, and to build power and to really create something inclusive I knew it had to be inclusive from the beginning,” she told In These Times. “The traditional strategies that we’ve used around climate and climate policy just have not really gotten us very far.”

Maine has some unique characteristics: It is the most rural state in the nation, the whitest (roughly ­tied with Vermont), and the oldest. It’s also, as of 2019, one of just 14 states where Democrats control all three branches of state government.

While she knows her bill will be associated with the federal resolution, Maxmin stresses that hers should be understood as targeted legislation, specifically tailored to her state’s needs. “Of course, there are national parallels with not only the name but also echoing the themes of economic justice and opportunity, but it’s a very Maine-specific bill, and not meant to cover every component of the climate crisis,” she said.

Matt Schlobohm, the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, praised Maxmin for her deliberate efforts to “create a policy that was ambitious, aspirational and do-able” for working-class people. Maine’s labor community, which has about 12 percent union density, has not historically focused on climate issues or climate justice. Schlobohm thinks this legislation is a real chance for unions “to build trust and develop their analysis and capacity” in a meaningful way.

The bill sets less ambitious targets than the national Green New Deal resolution, which, among other things, calls for 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and includes language around reducing emissions from transportation and agricultural sectors. While the Maine Sierra Club supports the legislation, Maxmin acknowledged that some environmental activists have criticized her bill for not going far enough.

“Our approach was targeted legislation focused on economic and job growth in Maine,” she said, pointing to the solar projects for schools, and the jobs-focused task force which would report on its findings by next January. Like the state’s opioid task force which has paved the way to new state policies, Maxmin said she expects to be able to introduce more specific job legislation generated by the task force’s research next year. “There are other [environmental] bills going through the State House around transportation and agriculture,” she said. “This [bill] is for workers, low-income Mainers, and economic growth in Maine.”

Haley Maurice, a junior at Bowdoin College involved in the Bowdoin Climate Action group and a student leader with the national Sunrise Movement, has been involved in discussions with Rep. Maxmin to shape the bill. (Sunrise also endorsed Maxmin’s bid for office.)

“We started meeting in early February, and [Rep. Maxmin] was just really forward in saying we need young people involved,” she said. “I’ve been very impressed by her adamant belief in the democratic nature of the bill and in making sure that everyone who is affected by this is considered and at the table.”

Maurice said that while “other climate bills proposed in the Maine legislature have very ambitious timelines,” this is the first bill she believes really prioritizes how the energy transition will take place, and constitutes “a very strong starting point” for Maine. The legislation outlines requirements for a commission to study and track progress towards a low-carbon economy, particularly for those most adversely impacted: people from demographic groups that have been historically affected, and people who are low-income and cannot participate in energy efficiency programs.

Moreover, Maurice doesn’t think a state bill on a less ambitious timeline is at odds with the work that she and her Sunrise colleagues are pushing for on the national level. If anything, Maurice said, it just reinforces why the federal government needs to also be involved in the process.

“When you say we need 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and we need a faster timeline, you need to think about the burden that places on Mainers here,” she said. “And if state bills have a slower timeline than what science is saying we need, I don’t think that is necessarily contradictory to our values. States need to push forward in the ways we can now while ensuring these transitions are happening in an equitable way, and we need a federal Green New Deal to bolster the work of the states.”

The Maine AFL-CIO’s support for the bill is an important milestone, as labor remains devided on the Green New Deal nationally. While the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee responded critically to the Green New Deal resolution, unhappy with both some of its specific language and its lack of specifics, other labor organizations have started to mobilize in support. In late March the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor approved a resolution in support of “a Green New Deal or similar effort” to address climate change and economic inequality. In mid-April, Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines, wrote an op-ed in in support of the Green New Deal, and the general urgency of tackling climate change.

Schlobohm said if he were to give advice to environmental leaders about how to organize effectively with labor, he’d encourage them to make deliberate efforts to understand unions, and engage them in a good-faith process. “And I think just the basic organizing 101 of showing up for each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of strikes and picket lines these days. Do environmental organizations show up at teacher strikes and grocery worker strikes? The same question should be asked of unions, but I think there’s just opportunity to build solidarity in this moment.”

For his labor allies, Schlobohm says the energy transition is going to happen, so it can either happen “with us or to us” and “one option is far superior than the other.”

Ultimately Schlobohm feels optimistic about the future of climate-labor organizing, says there are lots of opportunities for “win-wins”—and points to the recent organizing done by climate and labor groups in New York.

“There are renewable energy policies moving in every state in the country,” he said. “And every single one of those policy frameworks has the opportunity and levers for job quality and labor rights standards.”