"You Have Been Fooled": AGU Reopens Exxon Sponsorship Review After Stinging Letter From Sen. Whitehouse and Rep. Lieu

The world’s biggest earth sciences organization has agreed to reconsider its decision to retain cash sponsorship ties to oil giant ExxonMobil after being told it had been “fooled” in a stinging letter from two members of Congress.

In the letter, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Ted Lieu, both Democrats, told the American Geophysical Union (AGU): “You have been fooled.  Whatever position AGU chooses to take, you should not take it based on self-serving representations by ExxonMobil.”

Last month, AGU announced its board had voted to continue a relationship with ExxonMobil.  Now that decision is under review.

The oil company had previously sponsored a student breakfast at the union’s fall meetings, and AGU said it expected this relationship to continue.

More than 200 AGU members and other concerned scientists had signed a letter calling for AGU to drop ExxonMobil over its decades-long funding of organizations pushing climate science denial. Some scientists later called for a boycott of the next AGU Fall meeting.

ExxonMobil is currently facing investigations from state Attorneys General, led by New York, over whether it lied about its knowledge of the risks of burning fossil fuels to the world’s climate.

In justifying its earlier decision, AGU president Margaret Leinen had written that “it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently, either directly or indirectly.”

This angered scientists who had put together a dossier showing how ExxonMobil was providing ongoing support to lobby groups and organizations fighting against cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and downplaying or misrepresenting climate science.

In the Whitehouse and Lieu letter, the pair cites ExxonMobil’s latest available Worldwide Giving and Community Investments report, saying: “EM gave money as recently as 2014 to several organizations that cast doubt on climate change, so we are surprised at AGU’s conclusion.”

ExxonMobil had given money to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the Pacific Legal Foundation, the letter said, which had all issued statements through representatives and affiliates contradicting the scientific consensus on climate change.

But Whitehouse and Lieu also took on a statement by Leinen in an interview after last month’s decision, where the president had, according to the letter, pointed to ExxonMobil’s public statements in support of a carbon tax as evidence the company had changed its position. The letter reads:

We can attest that Exxon’s purported support for a carbon tax is not real.  It is impossible to reconcile EM’s stated support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax with the lobbying activities of EM and the trade associations that claim to represent EM on the Hill.  What we see in Congress is that their lobbying efforts are 100 percent opposed to any action on climate.”

It is sadly not unheard of in legislative matters for an interest group to take a public position, but then flex its mighty lobbying and political muscle against that very position.  As Members of Congress we wanted to warn you not to take the EM “position” on a carbon price at face value.  It is false.”

Whitehouse and Lieu also pointed to a report from research organization InfluenceMap, reported by DeSmogUK, estimating ExxonMobil had spent $27 million on obstructive climate lobbying in 2015. The letter highlighted ExxonMobil’s membership of trade groups, including the American Petroleum Institute (API). The pair wrote: 

API, the Chamber of Commerce, and other EM trade associations are dead set against Congress doing anything serious about climate change. Their power in Congress is fully dedicated to stopping any serious climate legislation, and we see their hostility everywhere.”

Announcing the decision to review AGU’s relationship with ExxonMobil, Leinen wrote in a blog post:

We have communicated to Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Lieu the Board’s commitment to review and discuss the information they presented to us. We have also informed them that when we assess ExxonMobil’s actions, AGU must look at what they are saying and doing about the science, and not at potential legislation that we cannot take a position on, such as a carbon tax. In the meantime, we are continuing our work to establish a constructive dialogue about these issues, engaging all sides.

“We are exploring appointing a working group to develop options for engagement that we can consider.This does not mean that we are endorsing ExxonMobil, or that we are not monitoring the outcomes of current investigations by State Attorneys General into ExxonMobil’s past actions.”

Professor Charles Greene, of Cornell University, who is helping co-ordinate voices opposing Exxon, told DeSmog: “Obviously, we are very excited that Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Lieu are rebuking AGU’s Board for its shocking decision to take ExxonMobil’s dirty money, thereby giving the company a free pass after its decades-long climate misinformation campaign. This is not about ExxonMobil being a fossil fuel company. 
 
“This is about it lying and misinforming the public, policymakers, and its own shareholders about climate change for years after its own scientists reported the risks involved. The damage is done and irreversible for centuries. Earth and climate scientists know this; so, how can we accept their dirty money in good conscience? The Board is breaking AGU’s bylaws, and I hope that they will be held accountable for it.”
 
Greene said he had written to several members of the AGU board to ask if union members could have a vote on the issue, but had received no response.

Image courtesy of Natural History Museum