The dark money front groups that do Big Oil’s dirty work
Not just the same playbook: Big Tobacco used the same exact people to keep their critics at bay.
Good morning and happy Friday. It’s been a weird one, what with President Trump describing a “hypothetical” situation at his rally in which he called up the CEO of Exxon to offer drilling permits in exchange for campaign donations. Exxon responded in character:
But if you thought Exxon was part of the resistance, uh, think again. Lying is what this industry does for a living, after all. Which brings me to the subject of today’s newsletter: the industry shills and front groups that work on behalf of Big Oil to mislead and deceive the public about climate lawsuits.
Every time another community sues Big Oil, one particular group always pipes up: the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project.
If you read news coverage of climate liability lawsuits, like the one Maui County filed against 20 oil and gas companies last week, you often see statements from Phil Goldberg, special counsel for the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project (MAP), that criticize the communities seeking to hold Big Oil accountable and accuse them of “scapegoat[ing] energy manufacturers.”
So what is MAP, and why are they so protective of climate polluters? MAP launched in 2017 to fight what it refers to as “activist litigation” (that’s their term for lawsuits holding industries accountable for endangering the public for profit, FYI). And it’s a project of The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the industrial trade association that represents more than 14,000 companies, including Exxon and Shell.
A recent Senate committee report described NAM as one of the two most influential dark money adversaries of climate action, “even more than fossil fuel industry trade associations such as [the American Petroleum Institute].” That’s saying a lot since API, as you may recall, is now being sued in three states for its track record of climate deception.
MAP’s work on behalf of Big Oil is simple: they lie about the basic facts of these cases to confuse the public and distract from, well, the industry’s history of lying and confusing the public. Some examples:
They claim that climate liability suits “ostensibly ask judges — not Congress or administrative agencies — to decide how much carbon dioxide, if any, a company or its products can lawfully emit” — which is plain wrong. These cases have nothing to do with setting policy or reducing emissions, and everything to do with holding the industry accountable for deceiving the public and for the resulting damages.
They tell half the story to make their side look better. In one op-ed, for example, Goldberg cherry picks quotes from a sympathetic judge’s ruling in a Texas court without noting that the judge ultimately ruled against the industry.
They use misleading statements about the outcomes of the cases. In their press statement on Maui’s recently filed climate liability lawsuit, Goldberg writes that “every court to reach the substance of the allegations has dismissed them.” That ignores the fact that only one of 25 cases filed against the industry in recent years has been decided on its merits. The remaining cases are alive and well, and have yet to be decided on the substance of the claims.
Then there are the fun extra tricks, like attempting to shut down law school seminars about climate liability and singling out and publicly criticizing lawmakers who support liability by name.
Though the subject is new, these talking points aren’t. As it so happens, corporate front groups like MAP have a history of manipulating the facts to help certain industries escape justice.
You see, NAM doesn’t just represent Big Oil. They also work for other corrupt and harmful brands, like Phillip Morris, the multinational tobacco giant sued by the U.S. Department of Justice, state and local governments, and countless individuals for denying the link between smoking and lung cancer. As recently explained by Geoff Dembicki at VICE News, internal tobacco company documents described the National Association of Manufacturers as a “loyal” ally that had “aggressively courted the media on issues consistent with our interests,” targeted Democratic policymakers, and worked with the industry to cripple litigation against them.
Which brings us back to Phil Goldberg. Because MAP isn’t his only gig. He’s also a managing partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a law firm with a special history of its own, representing — that’s right — Big Tobacco.
It’s no coincidence that Big Oil’s efforts to lie to the public about the harms their products cause are so similar to the same campaigns from Big Tobacco: the industries employ some of the same people.
In 1967, Shook, Hardy & Bacon wrote up an action plan for the Tobacco Institute titled “The Cigarette Controversy,” intended to sow widespread doubt about the documented link between cigarettes and lung cancer — and boy did they take it from there. According to a 2006 ruling against Philip Morris from U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, Shook, Hardy & Bacon “assisted the Tobacco Institute in setting strategy, preparing witnesses on smoking and health issues, briefings, reviewing press releases, advertisements, and other public statements, and orchestrating follow-up activities.”
The judge continued: “A word must be said about the role of lawyers in this fifty-year history of deceiving smokers, potential smokers, and the American public about the hazards of smoking and second hand smoke, and the addictiveness of nicotine. What a sad and disquieting chapter in the history of an honorable and often courageous profession.” 😳
(Note for all the film buffs out there: you might know Shook, Hardy as the inspiration for the villainous Smoot, Hawking, an Omaha-based law firm working overtime to stamp out dying smokers' claims against Big Tobacco, in Thank You for Smoking. Or from Russell Crowe’s portrayal of chemist-turned-whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, who attended orientation at Shook Hardy when he started at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, in The Insider. Classy characters, these guys.)
The end goal: deceive, distract, and delay — and protect these industry’s reputations.
Corporate shills have their strategies to undermine litigation down pat: fear monger about government intervention, attack lawyers and plaintiffs, and twist the facts of their cases to ultimately deflect the public’s attention away from the substance of these suits. That’s something of which Goldberg, who himself wrote that “the media, through the way it covers litigation, can have a tremendous impact on how individual lawsuits are resolved,” seems to be well aware.
Lying to save face is the only thing these companies and their defenders know how to do — and their attacks on climate litigation and allegations against them only further prove that point. It’s almost hard to keep up — but that’s what we’re here for, right?
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Until next week!