Judge: Calif. cities alleging doom in climate change lawsuits sold investors a different story
By: John O’Brien
California officials who are suing large energy companies are telling two contradictory stories while taking part in a targeted effort featuring state attorneys general, private lawyers and Rockefeller money, a Texas judge has found.
On April 24, Tarrant County District Judge R.H. Wallace, Jr. signed off on proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, changing little from what Exxon is claiming – that lawsuits from California cities and counties are the product of an alleged conspiracy and assert that near-certain, climate change-caused doom is coming, even though previous bond offerings made to potential investors say such catastrophes can’t be predicted.
“While the California municipalities alleged in their complaints against the energy companies that the impacts of climate change were knowable, quantifiable and certain, they told their investors the exact opposite,” Wallace said.
“These contradictions raise the question of whether the California municipalities brought these lawsuits for an improper purpose.”
The California counties of Marin, Santa Cruz and San Mateo and the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz, Richmond and Imperial Beach have filed suit against several energy companies – including Exxon, Chevron and BP – over climate change. The company is also being targeted by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York.
Exxon took the fight to Texas in January by asking that it be allowed to depose the officials who filed these cases, as well as Hagens Berman lawyer Matt Pawa. The firm is representing some of the plaintiffs on a contingency fee.
The depositions could lead to a lawsuit alleging the California cases were brought in bad faith.
Statements made to potential investors contradict allegations made by the municipalities when they sued the energy industry, Exxon argued. For example:
San Mateo County’s complaint says it is “particularly vulnerable to sea level rise” and that there is a 93% chance the county experiences a “devastating” flood before 2050. However, bond offerings in 2014 and 2016 noted that the county “is unable to predict whether sea-level rise or other impacts of climate change or flooding from a major storm will occur.”
At a recent American Enterprise Institute event, an attorney representing Colorado governments in climate change cases noted that the bond offerings came with a statement regarding a final paper from the California Climate Change Center that said property in San Francisco Bay is vulnerable to impacts associated with sea-level rise.
But the cities did not present an opinion on the accuracy of those claims, which was noted by Competitive Enterprise Institute attorney who attended the event.
The California cases came five years after a “playbook” was discussed at a 2012 conference in La Jolla, CA. It is being carried out by Pawa, the AGs of New York and Massachusetts and the California local governments, Exxon said.
The judge’s findings of fact agree.
“During the conference, participants discussed strategies to ‘[w]in [a]cess to [i]nternal [d]ocuments’ of energy companies, like ExxonMobil, that could be used to obtain leverage over these companies,” the filing says.
“The conference participants concluded that using law enforcement powers and civil litigation to ‘maintain pressure on the industry that could eventually lead to its support for legislative and regulatory responses to global warming.’ One commentator observed, ‘Even if your ultimate goal might be to shut down a company, you still might be wise to start out by asking for compensation for injured parties.’”
In 2016, Pawa met with members of the philanthropic Rockefeller Family Fund. The draft agenda said the goals of his campaign included convincing the public that Exxon is a corrupt institution that “has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm,” as well as forcing public officials to distance themselves from the company by refusing campaign donations and rejecting requests for meetings.
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund recently awarded a $200,000 grant to the Niskanen Center, which is representing the City of Boulder in its lawsuit against Exxon and another company.
“The draft agenda notes that participants planned to use ‘AGs’ and ‘Tort()’ suits to ‘get() discovery’ and ‘creat(e) scandal,’” the judge’s filing says.
Those AGs attempted to hide their coordination with Pawa, the judge says.
“At the press conference, Attorney General Schneiderman discussed the need to regulate the energy industry’s speech on climate change, just as Potential Defendant Pawa had urged at La Jolla and at the Rockefeller meeting,” the filing says.
The judge also found that this effort was done with a goal of chilling Texas-based free speech (Exxon’s statements public statements about climate change), so jurisdiction is proper in his court.