Newly-publicized documents show state and local governments who oppose Trump administration energy policy are using private money–including from sources abroad–to fund lawsuits here in the U.S.
According to records obtained by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), major environmentalist groups pursuing lawsuits against Exxon Mobil and other oil companies received donations from foundations based in Europe. This includes legal action on behalf of local governments who are pursuing these cases. The paper, which as the result of years of research, documents “an extensive and elaborate campaign using elective law enforcement offices, in coordination with major donors and activist pressure groups, to attain a policy agenda that failed through the democratic process.”
Starting in 2012, environmentalist groups began flying staff from state attorneys general offices to special briefings “with ‘prospective funders’ about ‘potential state causes of action against major carbon producers.'” While this meeting has long been reported, the information uncovered by CEI reveals how this system morphed into one where private donors funded a network of “pro bono” attorneys and public relations services.
The legal non-profit representing both the city and county of Boulder and San Miguel County, Col. in their suits against Exxon Mobil and other oil companies received donations from foundations based in Europe, the documents show. In New York, billionaire and liberal activist Michael Bloomberg, for example, paid to hire special research fellows to work with state prosecutors on environmental cases. The New York state attorney general’s office defended the practice, saying that additional resources were needed because of the “non- litigation advocacy” it was performing.
This “advocacy” includes the filing of common law nuisance cases against industries that supposedly causing global warming. In its application for the grants, the state explained that it “needs additional attorney resources to assist with this project.”
“This is the most dangerous example of a modus operandi we have found: it uses nonprofit organizations as pass-through entities by which donors can support elected officials to, in turn, use their offices to advance a specific set of policies favored by said donors,” writes environmental attorney Christopher Horner, a senior fellow at CEI. “It also uses resources that legislatures will not provide and that donors cannot legally provide directly. The budget for climate policy work alone is in the tens of millions of dollars per year.”
Climate lawsuits here in the U.S. are also being funded by Oak Foundation, a private foundation headquartered in Switzerland and led by U.K.-native Alan M. Parker. According to reporting by Kevin Mooney, the Oak Foundation committed $100 million to its climate justice initiative between 2015 and 2020. This money was then distributed in grants of between $600,000 and $75 million.
The Oak Foundation donates to many environmental legal groups, including the Center for International Environmental Law, where Matt Pawa, one of the recurring names in the climate change lawsuits, sits on the board. It also donated to EarthRights International, the legal nonprofit representing the city and county of Boulder in their lawsuits.
“The grants raise serious questions about why a British billionaire’s Swiss foundation is supporting a litigation campaign against U.S. oil companies,” writes Mooney.
Both through grant money and by providing fully-funded assistants, private donors both domestically and abroad are seeking to change the direction of American environmental policy. Their connections to the sprawling public nuisance cases against major oil companies show a sinister side to what had, at times, been presented as bold, independent acts by local officials.
It also raises concerns about if the law is being applied equitably. Other special interest groups have not been given such access to state attorneys general.
“The extension of this billion-dollar per year climate industry to privately fund AG investigations sets a dangerous precedent,” Horner says in the report. “It represents private interests commandeering the state’s police powers to target opponents of their policy agenda and to hijack the justice system as a way to overturn the democratic process’s rejection of a political agenda.”
Even after a year of legal defeats, the quest to win a major environmental lawsuit, preferably against an energy company, continues. Unfortunately, so does what Horner calls “donor-based government.”