Seeds of anti-Exxon campaign were planted at 2012 climate change conference, company says

By Ann Maher | Jan 9, 2018

LA JOLLA - A 2012 climate change conference in La Jolla, Calif., was designed to impose a uniform perspective on climate policy that has resulted in abuses of government power, according to a major oil producer that says it's been unfairly targeted.

As ExxonMobil filed its latest response to attack from public officials, it described strategies that developed from the conference as the "La Jolla playbook," from which participants now advocate for government investigations and litigation against energy companies "to 'pressure' the targets to provide 'support for legislative and regulatory responses to global warming.'"

In court papers filed in Texas state court Jan. 8, the energy company says that in spite of its acknowledgement of climate change risks, it has been targeted with lawsuits and pre-textual investigations brought by state and local governments intended to "cleanse the public square of alternative viewpoints."

The plans of attack were hatched at the conference five years ago, the company says.

According to a summary of the La Jolla conference, "Workshop on Climate Accountability, Public Opinion, and Legal Strategies," speakers discussed how climate mitigation might improve with "public acceptance (including judges and juries) of the causal relationships between fossil fuel production, carbon emissions, and climate change."

Sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Climate Accountability Institute, the conference included about two dozen "leading" scientists, lawyers and legal scholars, historians, social scientists and public opinion experts. the summary states.

They debated the viability of "diverse strategies," that included legal merits of "targeting carbon producers, as opposed to carbon emitters," for U.S.-focused climate mitigation.

The group also sought to identify "the most promising and mutually reinforcing intellectual, legal, and/or public strategies for moving forward," the summary indicates.

It explored which changes - increasing extreme heat and sea level rise, for instance - could be "most compellingly attributed to human-caused climate change, both scientifically and in the public mind."

"Participants also considered options for communicating this scientific attribution of climate impacts in ways that would maximize public understanding and produce the most effective mitigation and adaptation strategies," the summary states. 

Emphasis was placed on lessons that could be learned from tobacco litigation with respect to how public perception and legal strategies changed over time. The summary says that even though science had not changed substantively in cancer cases, at some point in time, tobacco companies began losing in court.

"Juries began to find the industry liable because tobacco companies had known their products were harmful while they publicly denied the evidence, targeted youth, and manipulated nicotine levels," the summary states.

Legal action taken against oil companies since the La Jolla conference has come from state attorneys general and local governments.

Exxon says that attorneys general in New York, Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands were eager to implement the "La Jolla playbook." For instance, it says that at a March 2016 press conference "state officials spoke openly about their use of law enforcement tools to restrict the scope of permissible public debate about climate change."

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey have since been fighting to enforce their investigative subpoenas.

The company also was sued in 2017 by a number of local and municipal governments in California that claim sea levels have risen due to carbon emissions produced by Exxon Mobil and others.

ExxonMobil now wants to depose about a dozen California officials who were involved in preparing the litigation. The company argues that the officials must account for a glaring discrepancy when they did not disclose flood risks to investors in bond offerings.

Attorney Matt Pawa, of Hagens Berman, was a speaker at the La Jolla conference and is called by Exxon the architect of the La Jolla playbook. He also represents the cities of Oakland and San Francisco in their lawsuits against Exxon.

"The morning of the press conference in which state attorneys general promoted their constitutionally infirm investigations of ExxonMobil, Mr. Pawa conducted a closed-door seminar on that topic, which he was instructed to conceal from the press and public," Exxon claims.

"The record also shows Mr. Pawa coordinating with the Rockefeller Family Fund and others, to devise and implement an 'Exxon campaign' with the express objective of 'establish[ing] in [the] public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution.'"

If Exxon is granted the ability to depose the individuals responsible for filing the California lawsuits, it will apparently use that testimony to file a civil conspiracy lawsuit.

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Exxon Mobil Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, LLP

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