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Foreign money bankrolls climate change lawsuits against US oil companies

Foreign money bankrolls climate change lawsuits against US oil companies

by Kevin Mooney

Politically motivated government officials who joined with environmental activists and academic figures to prosecute energy companies and silence climate skeptics have experienced significant setbacks in recent months. The #ExxonKnew campaign was born out of the idea that Exxon Mobil, along with other energy companies, deliberately misled the public and their own shareholders about the perceived dangers of climate change. In the past few days, I’ve reported on the flaws in the arguments underpinning this campaign and on recent legal rulings that exonerate the energy companies.

Chris Horner, an attorney with the Competitive Enterprise Institute based in D.C., recently discovered through open record requests how green activists are infiltrating state attorneys general and governor offices across the country, enacting the policies of their benefactors. These records also revealed efforts by democratic megadonor Wendy Abrams to recruit Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan for the cause.

But where is all the money for this anti-energy campaign coming from? As it turns out, some of it derives from overseas sources.

The Oak Foundation is a private foundation headquartered in Geneva with operations in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Bulgaria, and Denmark, according to its website. The organization is led by Alan M. Parker, a U.K. native who now resides in Switzerland.

Financial records show that between 2015 and 2020, the Oak Foundation committed $100 million to its “climate justice” initiative, with grants ranging from $600,000 to $75 million.

Under this initiative, the Oak Foundation awarded $1 million to the Center for International Environmental Law based in Washington, D.C. Matt Pawa, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys for the climate lawsuits, and Sharon Eubanks, who spearheaded the Justice Department’s tobacco litigation in the 1990s, both sit on the center’s board of trustees. CIEL is a vocal supporter of the litigation campaign against the energy industry, going so far as to set up a website and publish an accompanying report titled “Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis.”

The Oak Foundation also donates to other U.S.-based environmental groups like EarthRights International, a Washington, D.C.-based legal nonprofit, which represents Boulder (City and County) and San Miguel County, Colo., in their climate liability lawsuit against Exxon Mobil and Suncor. It’s unclear how much the Oak Foundation has donated to EarthRights from its website, but their growing influence inside the U.S. is evident from other grant information available online.

For example, the foundation pledged $75 million to the San Francisco-based ClimateWorks Foundation to develop “responsible global and local governance mechanisms, which will have important ramifications socially as well as environmentally.”

The grants raise serious questions about why a British billionaire’s Swiss foundation is supporting a litigation campaign against U.S. oil companies.

But the Oak Foundation is not operating in a vacuum. It is just one component of an international, interconnected network of grant-making institutions influencing U.S. climate policy.

The European Climate Foundation collects and redistributes grants between green philanthropies. The Oak Foundation is one of ECF’s core funders and its president and environment program director both sit on the ECF’s Supervisory Board. The ECF claims its grants are exclusively EU-based, but a closer examination of their projects reveal efforts to influence politics in the U.S. and beyond.

The ECF’s Global Strategic Communications Service assists governments, nongovernmental organizations, media, and think tanks to develop climate communications, ensuring that “each campaign bolsters an over-arching narrative.” It operates in many G-20 countries outside of Europe, including the United States. Recently obtained emails confirm correspondence between Tom Brookes, GSCC’s executive director and senior adviser to the aforementioned ClimateWorks, and the office of Gov. Jay Inslee D-Wash., to develop a communications plan around the U.S. Climate Alliance and Climate Week. According to an archived version of its website, ECF is part of the “ClimateWorks Network” and shares the organization’s funding and goals.

Another ECF project, the Climate Briefing Service, also looks to shape communications across borders. The U.S.-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation granted ECF $2 million in 2015 to launch CBS, a service designed to “provide country-specific content to critical governmental bodies.”

These international organizations seem to complement aggressive domestic action by the Rockefeller Family Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund to shape climate policy and bankroll the #ExxonKnew campaign.

In a 2016 New York Times column, members of the Rockefeller family acknowledged that they petitioned government officials to take on Exxon Mobil. Top officials with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund professed on national TV that they’ve helped finance various elements of the #ExxonKnew campaign, including supporting several news outlets and a peer-criticized paper on Exxon Mobil’s climate communications. Both InsideClimate News and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the organizations that wrote the first stories that spawned the #ExxonKnew campaign, received significant contributions from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund.

The Rockefellers continue to mobilize green activists around the #ExxonKnew campaign. In January 2016, Pawa and other key players convened at the Rockefeller Family Fund offices in New York City to discuss the “goals of an Exxon campaign,” including attempting “to establish in the public’s mind that Exxon Mobil is a corrupt institution.” Most notably, leaders of the Rockefeller Family Fund admitted in a recent New York Times column that they are also funding groups promoting the climate lawsuits.

The evidence indicates that wealthy organizations, both foreign and domestic, are using their money to influence U.S. public officials, promote their climate agenda, and sponsor litigation against fossil fuel companies.

Green activists, megadonors, and the law firms pursuing litigation seem united in their mission to undermine the energy industry. The question now becomes: Who got to these state attorneys generals first? Who originated the campaign against the fossil fuel companies — the Rockefellers or the activists? While the lawsuits struggle in court, the anti-fossil fuel network and the funding for that network remain firmly in place, growing larger and ever more sophisticated.

Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. who writes for several national publications.