Exxon Mobil has accused the Rockefellers of masterminding a climate change conspiracy aimed at destroying the fossil fuel industry.
The company has launched a campaign to defend its image after the Rockefeller family pressured lawyers, journalists and environmental groups to try and destroy the oil and gas company.
But the oil and gas giant has directed some of its fiercest fire at the descendants of John D. Rockefeller, who in 1870 founded Standard Oil, the company that became Exxon Mobil. Rockefeller family charities, longtime backers of environmental causes, have supported much of the research and reporting that has called the company to account for its climate policies, and Exxon Mobil is crying foul.
The pressure on the company is intense. Journalists have published exposés of the company’s research into climate change, including actions it took to incorporate climate projections into its exploration plans while playing down the threat. Such reporting projects, financed in part by Rockefeller family charities, included last year’s work by Inside Climate News and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which published its results with The Los Angeles Times. The findings have been boiled down to the popular Twitter shorthand #ExxonKnew.
Exxon Mobil, in public statements, court filings and thick dossiers on the company’s opponents, says it is the target of a well-funded and politically motivated conspiracy to harm its core business.
Yet where Exxon Mobil and its allies see a tangled conspiracy, members of the Rockefeller family see an effort to use the vast wealth generated by fossil fuels to combat the damage done by fossil fuels.
Now the family has taken the unusual step of going public to state its case in a rare interview and in a two-part essay in The New York Review of Books that lays out in detail Exxon Mobil’s research and funding of climate denial. David Kaiser, an author of the essay and a fifth-generation Rockefeller, said dryly, “The family generally doesn’t do public things in this way.”
He said he was aware that the “obvious historical irony of the fact that we are Rockefellers doing this would attract additional attention to the story — and we want attention to the story, because we think it will make clear to the public that the so-called debate over climate science has been a fake one, artificially manufactured, and a basically dishonest one from the beginning.”
State attorneys general, beginning last year with Eric T. Schneiderman of New York, began conducting fraud investigations that focus on whether the company’s decades-long research into climate change, and the likelihood that energy companies will not be able to exploit all of their fossil fuel reserves, makes recent valuation of those reserves questionable. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission has launched its own investigation of the company’s accounting of reserves.
Exxon Mobil says it has recognized the threat of climate change and the need to fight it for more than a decade; the company says it stopped funding the organizations that promote climate denial in the mid-2000s. It has also argued that its early research has been mischaracterized.
The company is attacking the role of the Rockefeller family in encouraging, and in some cases bankrolling, the investigations and campaigns against it. Both journalism organizations that investigated the company were financed, at least in part, by Rockefeller philanthropies, though the organizations say that their donors have no control over what they write.
A conference in January to discuss activism and education efforts surrounding Exxon Mobil’s climate work was held at the offices shared by two Rockefeller family funds. One potential subject of discussion suggested by a participant was “to establish in public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm.”
Alan Jeffers, an Exxon Mobil spokesman, said in an interview, “At every turn, as we saw the company coming under attack, there was a link back to either the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or the Rockefeller Family Fund.”
The two philanthropies have announced that they are divesting themselves of fossil fuels. When the family fund made its announcement in March, it denounced Exxon Mobil’s “morally reprehensible conduct” on climate change.
Mr. Jeffers responded, “It’s not surprising that they’re divesting from the company since they’re already funding a conspiracy against us.”
The company and its allies have turned up the heat on its founding family and other opponents.
Industry-backed policy groups like Energy in Depth generate stories that attack the family and its philanthropy. Their charges are echoed in conservative news outlets like The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page and The Daily Caller. Breitbart News has called the collaboration among environmental groups to urge the investigation of Exxon a “RICOconspiracy,” using the acronym for the federal racketeering law, and the industry-oriented site Natural Gas Now published an article declaring, “It’s time to RICO the Rockefellers.”
The company’s allies offer journalists what political operatives refer to as opposition research, including court records and favorable articles (as do activist groups opposing Exxon Mobil).
Exxon Mobil has also pulled the Rockefeller philanthropies into its legal battles against the attorneys general investigating it, sending the groups a subpoena demanding documents and communications related to their activism.
A federal judge in Dallas, Ed Kinkeade, granted the company the right to pursue discovery in its cases against the state attorneys general. He ruled that comments by Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts at a news conference about the investigations in March, which also featured former Vice President Al Gore, may have shown that she was presupposing what an investigation would show, which may demonstrate that she acted in bad faith in pursuing the case. The judge has taken the exceptional step of ordering depositions of Ms. Healey and Mr. Schneiderman.
The Rockefeller funds have also received subpoenas from another friend of Exxon Mobil, the chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar S. Smith, a Texas Republican. Mr. Smith has harshly criticized the attorneys general over their investigations, and has accused the Rockefeller funds of taking part in “a coordinated effort to deprive companies, nonprofit organizations and scientists of their First Amendment rights and ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of prosecution.”
The Rockefeller family responds that it is trying to right a historic social and environmental wrong, using the straightforward tools of the First Amendment.
“The Rockefeller Family Fund has exercised its freedom of speech in expressing our repugnance at Exxon Mobil’s behavior,” said Mr. Kaiser, the president of the fund. “We have exercised our freedom of association by talking with like-minded public interest advocates about how best to educate the public about the realities of climate change. And we have exercised our right to petition the government for redress of grievances by informing elected officials about our concerns that in the course of its climate science campaign, Exxon may have violated the law. All of those rights are explicitly guaranteed to us by the First Amendment.”
He said that within the clan — the direct descendants of John D. Rockefeller and their families number some 270 — he has received “passionate support” for the fund’s efforts, though he acknowledged, “I haven’t heard back from everyone in the family.”
One family member, Ariana Rockefeller, called the efforts against the oil company “deeply misguided” and said “they are counterproductive to our goal of protecting the environment by undermining Exxon’s ongoing good work in clean and renewable energy.”
The Rockefeller family has enthusiastically embraced the environmental movement since the 1960s, and has focused on climate change since the 1980s. The engagement with Exxon itself has been more gradual; members of the family tried for more than a decade, through conversations with company executives and through proxy measures, to get Exxon to take a stronger stance in favor of clean energy and, in the days when the company was expressing doubts in paid advertisements in The New York Times about climate science, to get it to stop.
Peter Frumhoff, the director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that published its own investigation of Exxon Mobil’s efforts to promote uncertainty about climate science, said that his group had received “modest funding support” over the years from the Rockefeller funds. He said that activism by the Rockefellers, because of their family connection to Standard Oil, made them “an essential voice,” and that he and his group had received subpoenas from Exxon.
“We’ve clearly hit a nerve, haven’t we?” he said.
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