Energy Attorneys Say It’s ‘Futile’ To Compare Oil Industry To Big Tobacco

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Attorneys with the energy industry argue ExxonMobil investigators cannot show how the company’s decision not to disclose internal information about climate change is comparable to the effect the tobacco industry had on public health.

Investigations into whether the oil industry misled investors, policy makers, and the public about how much companies such as Exxon and Chevron knew about global warming threatens to add momentum to an anti-fossil fuel campaign that compares the investigation to a decades-old investigation of the tobacco industry.

Law firms working with energy companies say lumping Exxon, among others, in with the tobacco industry is a fool’s errand — and a move that will never hold up in court.

Lawyers affiliated with energy producers dismiss such claims as mere “futile efforts” by a fledgling anti-oil movement to uproot several decades of case law. In order to hold defendants liable, Kevin Ewing, an attorney with the Houston law firm Bracewell, told reporters, their actions would need some direct link to pain inflicted on the plaintiffs in a case.

“Tobacco was shown to cause specific harm to specific individuals,” he added. “Not so with climate change, where we cannot yet discern the factual connection between a company’s conduct and individual harm, even though we can observe the global effects of climate change at large.”

Ewing’s comments come as environmentalist groups continue to ratchet up campaigns to tie one of the world’s largest oil producers in with cigarettes.

“If you look at the history of tobacco litigation through the first several decades, the result was always the same. The plaintiff always lost,” Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, told reporters Monday. “With each new case, more information came to public light. And that’s what we’re seeing here.”

Similarly, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, accompanied by Massachusetts Democratic Sens. Elizabeth and Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse, wrote a letter in May suggesting Republican efforts to stymie the Exxon investigation “reprises the tobacco lawsuit’s own early history of efforts from Congress to discourage or interfere with that lawsuit in order to protect the tobacco industry.”

Environmentalists have threatened investigations against oil companies for years, with little success to show for their efforts. But a group of 17 attorneys general calling themselves Attorneys General United for Clean Power Coalition are now in the throes of reinvigorating the inquisitions, as they investigate Exxon for fraud.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is leading the charge, said in a March 29 press conference hosted by Al Gore and several members of the group, that “The bottom line is simple: Climate change is real.” And if companies are committing fraud by “lying” about the effects of global warming, he added, the group will “pursue them to the fullest extent of the law.”

The group’s campaign origins can be traced back to a September investigation of ExxonMobil conducted by InsideClimate News and others. The investigation found that Exxon had allegedly covered up its knowledge concerning global warming.

Free speech groups are lambasting the group’s campaign to tar and feather Exxon, as well as global warming skeptics who once accepted funding from the oil company.

One such group — The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) — filed a Freedom of Information Act to acquire AG United for Clean Power Coalition’s internal emails. FACT hopes the internal emails will help explain why the attorneys general are using the full force of the government to “silence individuals and groups just because they hold certain viewpoints.”

“This unlawful effort is a blatant, Orwellian attack on the First Amendment’s right to free speech and we are going to expose their unconstitutional and unethical actions,” Matthew Whitaker, executive director of FACT said in May.

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