Epic bad idea: Democrats propose Justice Dept. join #Exxonknew battle

NY Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman at the podium March 29 with Al Gore, left, and other Democratic AGs.

Hillary Clinton better hope casualties are within the range of acceptable losses because this issue has snafu written all over it

By proposing that the Dept. of Justice investigate fossil fuel companies for misleading the public about climate change, the Democrats are backing a losing cause, one that could come back to bite them before the Nov. 8 election.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on stage at the Democratic National Convention.

Under intense pressure from eco-activists like Bill McKibben, last month the party accepted a joint proposal from both the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns to “investigate alleged corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies who have reportedly misled shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change…” according to their convention website.

The Democrats are throwing in their lot with the #Exxonknew activists, including McKibben, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and pretty much every green outfit with a website.

The eco-activist alliance with the Democrats is hardly news, but backing the involvement of a federal government department to further what is really just the next anti-fossil fuels political campaign doesn’t seem like good election strategy. Why? Because the case against Exxon Mobil – and other oil companies that are presumably being investigated by 17 state Democratic attorneys general – is weak.

Here are four reasons #Exxonknew is a dud to replace Keystone XL as the next big thing for the eco-activists:

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One, the odds of Exxon being convicted of criminal charges are slim to nil. David Kwok, assistant professor with the University of Houston Law Center, told me in an interview: “The climate change research, there’s a lot of participants in this, and it’s not clear that energy companies are the ones who know best about climate change.”

“From a high  level, it appears unlikely this will be a criminal case,” he said, adding that civil sanctions might be more successful because government agencies have more leverage.

Two, New York AG Eric Schneiderman has already lost a similar case against Peabody Energy, which was accused of providing “misleading statements to investors and the public about the financial risks from climate change and potential regulatory responses.”

The penalty? Peabody agreed to amend its SEC filings, but admitted no guilt or liability. No criminal conviction. No fine. As Prof. Kwok points out, the outcome will likely be the same for Exxon.

Three, Exxon is much better prepared to publicly defend itself than TransCanada, the Keystone XL proponent, which was woefully unprepared for the onslaught of protests, negative media attention, and social media attacks that started in 2009 and culminated with President Barack Obama rejecting the project’s application late last year.

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The world’s largest oil company says it will vigorously defend itself against the AGs’ allegations and the court of public opinion. Exxon has already softened its stance on climate change and is now supporting a national carbon tax, among other initiatives. As long as it continues to bob and weave, Schneiderman and the environmental groups will have a hard time landing a knock out punch.

Four, Schneiderman’s allegations don’t pass the commonsense test. For instance, eco-activists often compare Exxon’s funding of climate change denial groups with the tobacco industry’s infamous efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to deny links between smoking and lung cancer. But with smoking, one can draw a direct line between tobacco products and lung cancer. How do you make a direct link between climate change and a human death?

And oil producers are only one part – albeit a big one – of the climate change supply chain. Should Schneiderman charge General Motors because it made cars that burned Exxon’s oil? Consumers for buying those cars and filling them regularly with gasoline?

The argument is just too tangled for the average American voter. Keystone XL was one pipeline project that could be made into a symbol of the coming climate change Apocalypse. #Exxonknew is proving to be a much tougher sell, except to the small cohort of environmental extremists always looking for the next big thing and the environmental movement, which needs the next big thing to fundraise.

Does Hillary Clinton want to die on this hill? Her support for the joint proposal to the Democratic convention committee suggests she might be willing to lead the charge.

She better hope the casualties are within the range of acceptable losses because this issue has snafu written all over it.

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