A little more than a century ago, one man, John D. Rockefeller, controlled 90 percent of all U.S. oil and was the richest man in the world. Today, the foundations run by his heirs are attacking that same fossil fuel industry. The Rockefeller Family Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund both donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to non-profits that are suiing Exxon, SunCor, and other major energy companies on behalf of the city of Boulder, as well as Boulder County and San Miguel County in Colorado.
“Suncor and Exxon have known about the costly consequences of fossil fuel use for more than 50 years. Yet they continued to promote and sell their products, while recklessly deceiving the public and policymakers about the dangers,” wrote EarthRights International (ERI), one of two DC-based nonprofits that filed the suits, in April.
What the group didn’t disclose was that Rockefeller donations made their lawsuits possible. Both ERI and the Niskanen Center (the other DC nonprofit working pro bono on the case) have received well-timed donations from Rockefeller family charities. This private money is being used to fund legal work on the lawsuits against Suncor and Exxon, a case intended to force energy companies to cover the costs of damages related to global warming, such as droughts, fires, and floods. Though the cities didn’t specify the damages requested, supporters think that a settlement could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, which would make a good payday for the lawyers involved.
Neither the Niskanen Center nor ERI are licensed to practice law in Colorado, so the case was filed by Kevin Hannon and the Hannon Law Firm. Hannon’s professional biography explains that he practices in the areas of torts, personal injury law, liability, and insurance bad faith. The terms of the Hannon contract haven’t yet been made public, but law firms in similar cases stand to take home 23.5 percent of any damages won, a sum that could easily reach the tens of millions.
That payoff hinges on a big if, though. In the meantime, it looks like the Rockefeller charities are helping to support the legal work needed to launch the suit.
According to the Rockefeller Brother’s Fund’s online grant database, the Nisken Center received a $200,000 donation “for its climate program” on February 22, 2018. The Boulder lawsuit was filed on April 17th.
Meanwhile, the Rockefeller Family Fund is listed as an “Institutional Funder” for the ERI and Kavita Ramdas, a trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, also sits on the ERI leadership council.
In fact, upper level leadership of the Rockefeller Family Fund has publicly acknowledged their involvement in the lawsuits. Earlier this year, Lee Wasserman and David Kaiser, respectively the director and president of the Rockefeller Family Fund, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times reiterating their commitment to “making the polluter pay.”
“Not coincidentally at all, 14 local and county governments and the State of Rhode Islandfiled such lawsuits in the last year, trying to make big oil companies pay their fair share for climate adaptations — the fortifications against the consequences, for instance, of rising seas, extreme weather and prolonged droughts. (The Rockefeller Family Fund has funded organizations that support the goals of these lawsuits,)” they wrote.
Rockefeller money also made its way to lawyer Matt Pawa, the man largely responsible for developing the climate lawsuit strategy in the first place. Before San Francisco and Oakland, Cal. filed their public nuisance lawsuits against Exxon and other major energy companies in September, 2017, Pawa worked for years to set up the cases and to find the best jurisdiction. And he did so in part thanks to Rockefeller money.
The Rockefellers supported Pawa’s efforts through donations to a group called the Global Warming Legal Action Project (GWLAP), which Pawa formed in 2004 and led for years. Through subsidiary groups, including the Sustainable Markets Fund and the Civil Society Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund donated some $200,000 to Pawa and his associates.
The Rockefeller money adds an odd veneer to what otherwise looks like a more straight-forward tort case. It also adds a touch of cosmic irony: The Rockefeller charities are spending large sums to take down a corporation descended from Standard Oil, the very firm that made them rich.