After months of speculation, the Boulder climate lawsuit announcement is official. During a rally last week, officials from the City and County of Boulder, along with San Miguel County announced they are suing Suncor and ExxonMobil for damages related to climate change they say were caused by these two companies.
The plaintiffs will be represented by a Denver-based law firm along with two Washington, D.C.-based non-profits, EarthRights International (ERI) and the Niskanen Center. Both groups say they’re representing the municipalities pro-bono.
The Boulder complaint marks the latest lawsuit filed by localities against energy companies; similar lawsuits have been brought by enterprising trial lawyers representing Coastal California and New York City. But this is the first time we’ve seen ERI or Niskanen enter the fray.
Recent reporting shows that ERI had an existing relationship with the Boulder plaintiffs and helped connect government officials to the Niskanen Center. But why did a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit approach Boulder officials and convince them to sue energy companies for climate change in the first place?
Connections to the Anti-Fossil Fuel Climate Campaign
Though the Boulder filing was seemingly ERI’s public debut in this years-long campaign against the energy industry, the group has connections to all the major anti-fossil fuel players backed by wealthy environmentalist foundations.
For starters, ERI is closely associated with activist Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). Recall that Muffett is a board member of the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI), which co-hosted that infamous 2012 La Jolla, Calif. conference where activists discussed ways to attack the fossil fuel industry and compare it to “Big Tobacco,” in order to harass energy producers and obtain internal company documents the activists were certain contained embarrassing information. (New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has looked through millions of ExxonMobil’s documents over the past two-and-a-half years and still has nothing to show for it.)
CIEL is also behind the “Smoke and Fumes” report series that repackages the same documents and presents them as new information to “show” that the energy industry knew about climate change but somehow hid it from the public for decades—again, with the hopes of turning public opinion against the industry and spurring legal investigations.
Muffett served on the CAI board alongside trial lawyer Matt Pawa (though Pawa was later removed). Pawa was a featured speaker at the La Jolla conference and has been spearheading the legal arm of the climate campaign. Pawa currently represents San Francisco, Oakland, and New York City in their litigation against the energy industry and stands to swipe 23.5 percent of whatever “damages” the cities may be awarded.
Pawa also serves on CIEL’s board, which has assembled some of the most prominent actors in the climate liability campaign, including Sharon Eubanks, a fellow La Jolla presenter. Eubanks has been the lead on developing the legal and public case to tie the energy industry to “Big Tobacco.”
Who else happens to sit on the board of Carroll Muffett’s anti-fossil fuel organization? ERI founder and U.S. Office Director, Katie Redford.
Muffett has also personally donated to ERI, because that’s what friends are for.
Ties to Cohen Milstein
In ERI’s most recent publicly available annual report, the group lists plaintiffs’ law firm Cohen Milstein as its co-counsel. Cohen Milstein has a history in the campaign against the energy industry – they’re the same law firm hired by the Virgin Islands Attorney General to work on the Exxon investigation back in 2016.
After the now-infamous “AGs United for Clean Power” March 29, 2016, press conference, which featured Former Vice President Al Gore as a speaker, Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey joined New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in launching investigations against ExxonMobil. They took issue with some of the things the company had said about climate policy during the preceding decades and decided to harass and intimidate the company in what 11 other state AGs later called an “unconstitutional abuse of investigative power.”
Shortly thereafter, and with help from Cohen Milstein, Walker issued a sweeping, overly broad and sloppily drafted subpoena that demanded any and all communications between ExxonMobil and no less than 90 different think tanks, non-profits and “and any other organizations engaged in research or advocacy concerning Climate Change or policies.”
The backlash was immediate, with many arguing that the subpoena infringed upon first amendment protections. The overreach was so egregious that Walker was forced to withdraw the subpoena within months of issuing the order.
Later on, in the back and forth of the investigation, the tables turned and a select group of environmental groups were subpoenaed to determine the level of collusion between the groups and the attorneys general pushing for the investigations. Leaked documents and the activists’ own admissions had revealed that they had approached these government officials, briefed them, and convinced them to begin investigations into Exxon, all in accordance with the La Jolla plan.
Unsurprisingly, Carroll Muffett was one of the activists targeted by the subpoena. Who is the legal representation defending Muffett in the probe? EarthRights International. In fact, they posted an entire blog post in defense of their “friend and colleague” Muffett.
Ties to Steyer and Other Wealthy Anti-Fossil Fuel Foundations
The connections don’t stop with Muffett. A review of ERI’s board members shows a cozy relationship with some of the anti-fossil fuel climate campaign’s most prolific funders.
One of these board members is Lara Johnson, a development manager for the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). This Snowmass, Colo.-based organization receives millions in funding from environmentalist-billionaire Tom Steyer. Steyer’s personal lawyer and close associate, Ted White, is the chairman of RMI.
Johnson was previously the regional coordinator for the Open Society Foundations—the George Soros group that helped fund the initial reporting written by students at Columbia University and published in the Los Angeles Times that kicked off the #ExxonKnew campaign.
A review of Internal Revenue Service filings shows that the Soros-backed Open Society also funds EarthRights International directly to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
Also on ERI’s board is Kavita Ramdas, a trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). RBF has been the leader of the campaign against Exxon and other energy producers—admitting to not only paying (alongside Open Society) for Columbia students to investigate the company directly, but also admitting to meeting directly with attorneys general to convince them to launch legal investigations of their own. The Rockefeller Family Fund—which is affiliated with RBF—is a direct funder of ERI.
But wait, there’s more.
An online database search of donations distributed by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation show that the organization has given almost $1 million to ERI since March 21, 2016—a date which happens to coincide closely with the Al Gore press conference. Worth noting, the Hewlett Foundation also gave the Niskanen Center—the other non-profit helping out on the Boulder case—a $300,000 donation “for climate policy and litigation program.” The Rockefeller Brothers Fund also made a $200,000 donation to the Niskanen Center shortly before it joined Boulder’s lawsuit. The Niskanen Center has denied any connection between the Rockefeller Brothers Fund grant and its involvement in the lawsuit.
ERI also receives funding from other environmentalist organizations like the Tides Foundation, Oak Foundation, Wallace Global Fund and The MacArthur Foundation.
It’s amazing that ERI has largely flown under the radar for so long. The group has deep ties to the legal activists and wealthy donors who are executing a coordinated and well-funded campaign against the energy industry. These connections raise a number of unanswered questions, and as the litigation continues, it’s likely that there will be even more sunlight on EarthRights International.