Exxon sign in Framingham, MA (Photo: Brian Katt, Wikpedia)
This story was produced in partnership with Sludge.
ExxonMobil prevailed on Tuesday in its legal battle against the state of New York, being found “not guilty” of misleading shareholders about the costs of climate change to its business.
The multiyear civil case, with New York seeking $1.6 billion in restitution to shareholders, marked only the second climate change-related lawsuit to reach trial in the U.S.
As it defended itself against accusations of hiding information from investors, ExxonMobil was represented by attorneys from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garris, a law firm that hosted a fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden in June and whose employees have given Biden and other Democratic candidates hundreds of large contributions.
Biden’s campaign has received at least $153,000 from Paul Weiss employees, including maximum contributions from two of the attorneys who argued on ExxonMobil’s behalf in the case, according to a review of Federal Election Commission data by LittleSis and Sludge. Lead attorney Ted Wells, who said in his closing statement that “ExxonMobil has done […] absolutely nothing wrong,” gave Biden’s campaign the legal maximum of $2,800 in May. Attorney Daniel Toal, who also represented ExxonMobil in the case, gave Biden $2,800 in April.
Wells has also donated to other candidates who have qualified for the next Democratic debate, including a $1,000 contribution to the campaign of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and $500 contribution to South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Of the seven candidates who have qualified, Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg have received the most money from Paul Weiss employees this year.
At his June fundraiser at Paul Weiss’ Manhattan office, Biden told the attorneys in attendance, “The fact of the matter is, you represent a lot of really good people, you represent a lot of people in need, you represent everybody.”
Paul Weiss is one of the most powerful law firms in the U.S. It specializes in representing corporate clients, including white collar clients facing government investigations and lawsuits. It was named “Law Firm of the Year” and “White Collar Litigation Department of the Year” this year by the American Lawyer.
Paul Weiss’s clients have included Citi, General Electric, Apollo Global Management, and a host of other powerful corporations and Wall Street firms. It recently advised CBS Corp. in its merger with Viacom, as well as former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn in his settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over Nissan’s underreporting of retirement payouts to Ghosn. Paul Weiss has also advised a group of Wall Street investors in Puerto Rico’s debt, known as the Ad Hoc Group of Puerto Rico General Obligation Bondholders.
According to OpenSecrets.org, Paul Weiss has been the top federal election contributor so far among U.S. law firms during the 2019-20 cycle.
The New York case is not Wells’ first time defending ExxonMobil. According to his bio on the Paul Weiss website, Wells has been lead counsel for the company in “a series of unprecedented climate change-related matters, including an SEC investigation [that] concluded with a recommendation for no enforcement action, multiple state attorneys general investigations, and several mass tort actions.” Some of Wells’ other clients have included banking giants Citigroup and Bank of America and pharmaceutical companies Merck and Johnson & Johnson.
Toal has also represented ExxonMobil previously, serving as trial counsel in a 2015 case in which the state of New Jersey sought $8.9 billion in damages for contamination of 1,500 acres of its wetlands and waterways. Toal helped ExxonMobil secure a much smaller settlement of $225 million.
On Biden’s campaign website, he identifies climate change as an existential threat and says he supports a Green New Deal as “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.” The key points in Biden’s climate plan are setting a target for reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and recommitting to the Paris Climate Agreement from which President Trump has withdrawn.
Despite his rhetorical support for a Green New Deal, Biden’s climate plan has been met with skepticism by environmental advocates and his campaign’s fundraising and staffing decisions have raised questions about his environmental commitments.
In its scoring of the climate change plans of the three leading Democratic candidates, the Sunrise Movement gave Biden by far the lowest score, dinging the former Vice President for his failure to provide timelines for banning fracking, ending new fossil fuel infrastructure, ending fossil fuel exports, and ending fossil fuel extraction entirely. Sunrise also faulted Biden for his plan’s failure to embrace other Green New Deal priorities such as guaranteeing universal healthcare and security for climate migrants and refugees. In all, Sunrise awarded Biden’s climate agenda 75 points out of a possible 200, which the group characterized as an “F-.”
Greenpeace gave Biden a B+ in its climate change scorecard, placing him behind Sanders, Warren, and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, but ahead of Buttigieg, Klobucher, and Yang.
In May 2019,Reuters reported on Biden’s “middle ground” climate policy, quoting campaign advisor Heather Zichal. As Sludge reported at the time, Zichal is a former official in the Obama Department of Energy who joined the board of Cheniere Energy, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export company, where she earned more than $1 million over four years. Cheniere was the first company in the United States to receive a permit to export LNG in 50 years, and Zichal met with Cheniere officials twice in 2013 while she was at the Department of Energy.
According to the Reuters report, Zichal is also seeking policy advice from Obama Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Moniz is the architect of the U.S. LNG export regime, which he advocated in 2011 in an influential industry-funded report from the MIT Energy Initiative called “The Future of Natural Gas.” After Trump took office, Moniz joined the board of gas and electric utility holding company Southern Company, one of the biggest carbon polluters in the United States, and founded a think tank and a consulting firm, which are both advocating for a plan Moniz calls the “Green Real Deal” as an alternative to the Green New Deal.
In September 2019, Biden attracted criticism for attending a fundraiser held by Andrew Goldman, a co-founder of Western LNG. David Thames, the other co-founder of Western LNG, was previously senior vice president and chief financial officer of Cheniere Energy.
Biden argued that Goldman was not listed as an executive on Western LNG’s filings with the SEC and that his fundraiser was therefore not technically a violation of Biden’s pledge not to accept fossil fuel money. However, reporter Naomi LaChance noted for Splinter that Western LNG referred to Goldman as one of the firm’s “seasoned team of executives” in a regulatory filing in Canada.
Other Democratic candidates have also received contributions from Paul Weiss employees. Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) campaign has gotten $126,000 from the firm’s employees, while Klobuchar has received $73,150, and Buttigieg has taken $21,000. The campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) got $173,000 from Paul Weiss employees before she dropped out of the race earlier this month.
New York State’s suit against ExxonMobil came against the backdrop of the 2015 publication of a wide-ranging series of investigations that revealed Exxon had been conducting research into global warming for decades, even as it was funding climate denial efforts and fighting against proposals that might curb greenhouse gas emissions. The investigations, published by the Columbia Journalism School, Guardian, and Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News, were based on numerous internal Exxon documents and interviews with former company employees.
As a result of these investigations, a range of climate organizations have signed onto the #ExxonKnew campaign, which seeks to hold Exxon accountable for funding climate change denial while understanding its role in hastening climate change.
Fossil fuel companies have ramped up their support for an industry-friendly carbon tax as a defense against potential climate lawsuits. ExxonMobil has given $1 million to Americans for Carbon Dividends (AFCD), a lobbying campaign that supports the Baker-Schultz plan, a carbon tax scheme created by two ex-Reagan administration officials that AFCD describes as “based on the conservative principles of free markets.”
AFCD is co-chaired by former U.S. Senators Trent Lott (R) and John Breaux (D), now lobbyists with the powerhouse lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs. Former U.S. House Representative Joe Crowley (D), who was defeated in the 2018 Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District by Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez, joined Squire Patton Boggs in February.
For fossil fuel companies, the AFCD plan “promises two potent prizes: a shield against climate-related lawsuits tied to past, legal emissions, and the end of federal regulations targeting greenhouse gas releases,” according to Bloomberg. BP, Shell, and ConocoPhillips have also given millions to AFCD.