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ExxonMobil is targeting lawyers and climate advocates with legal challenges for filing lawsuits against the company. (Photo: Johnny Silvercloud/flickr/cc)

'A Big Scare Tactic': ExxonMobil Files 'Conspiracy' Counter Suits Against Climate Defenders

Critics charge that by "positioning itself as a victim rather than a perpetrator," the company is aiming to "reframe the debate, use it as a diversionary tactic, and scare the heck out of everybody."

Jessica Corbett

In response to a series of lawsuits aimed at holding the oil giant to account for its climate crimes, ExxonMobil is taking "a bare-knuckle approach rarely seen in legal disputes" by threatening and filing counter suits against those who have sued them.

"Rather than bully communities trying to protect themselves, ExxonMobil should direct its vast resources to help fix the problem—and accept responsibility for the damages their products have caused."
—Peter Frumhoff, Union of Concerned Scientists

ExxonMobil "has targeted at least 30 people and organizations, including the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts, hitting them with suits, threats of suits, or demands for sworn depositions," based upon claims that "the lawyers, public officials, and environmental activists are 'conspiring' against it in a coordinated legal and public relations campaign," Bloomberg reports.

After a 2015 investigative report by InsideClimate News found that ExxonMobil had "conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and then, without revealing all that it had learned, worked at the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed," attorneys general Eric Schneiderman of New York and Maura Healey of Massachusetts opened investigations into whether the company defrauded investors.

Additionally, New York City as well as eight cities and counties in California have sued ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies on the grounds that they have denied and concealed climate science showing the long-term consequences of using oil and gas, and that they should shoulder some of the economic costs generated from the environmental harm their products have caused.

ExxonMobil has named the supposed "coordinated" campaign against them "The La Jolla playbook," inspired by a 2012 meeting of a couple dozen people in La Jolla, California, to explore legal strategies that could be taken to address climate change—a meeting which the company, as Bloomberg notes, is framing "as ground zero for its conspiracy claim."

"It's crazy that people are subpoenaed for attending a meeting," Sharon Eubanks, an attorney who attended the La Jolla event, told Bloomberg. She sees the actions as "a big scare tactic: reframe the debate, use it as a diversionary tactic, and scare the heck out of everybody."

When ExxonMobil made moves indicating potential counter suits in California last month, Peter Frumhoff, chief climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, declared that its strategy "to intimidate these communities by threatening lawsuits is just another effort to evade accountability for its decades-long campaign to deceive the public about climate science, and block policies that could have limited the climate impacts that California residents are now facing."

"People often try to use litigation to change the cultural conversation. Exxon is positioning itself as a victim rather than a perpetrator."
—Alexandra Lahav, University of Connecticut School of Law

"Rather than bully communities trying to protect themselves," he argued, "ExxonMobil should direct its vast resources to help fix the problem—and accept responsibility for the damages their products have caused."

Alexandra Lahav, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, posed that ExxonMobil's motive could be broader than scaring off future legal challenges or quashing those it's currently facing.

"People often try to use litigation to change the cultural conversation," Lahav noted. "Exxon is positioning itself as a victim rather than a perpetrator."

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