A report blaming the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in part on global warming has generated more ridicule than alarm, renewing scrutiny over the role of liberal foundations in keeping the fading #ExxonKnew social media campaign alive.
The article, “The role a melting glacier played in Exxon’s biggest disaster,” earned a few hat tips from the environmental movement after appearing Thursday in the Los Angeles Times, but the taunting from climate-catastrophe challengers has been merciless.
“Blindingly stupid,” “climate change fan fiction,” “irrelevant” and “ridiculous” were among the insults hurled at the report, written by students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Energy and Environmental Reporting Project.
“Anyone who has ever followed the story knows that the only ice responsible for the Exxon Valdez spill would be the ice cooling the captain’s many cocktails that night,” said Katie Brown of Energy in Depth, which is funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “But for anti-Exxon campaigners, no alternate theories (or should we say alternative facts?) are too outrageous to publish.”
Not lost on critics were the project’s funders: left-of-center philanthropies, including those backed by the Rockefeller family and billionaire George Soros, that have made no secret of their support for climate advocacy and antipathy toward the fossil fuel industry.
A disclosure at the end of the article said that the foundations “have no involvement in or influence over the articles produced by project fellows in collaboration with the Los Angeles Times,” but not everyone was buying it.
“The Los Angeles Times is really ramping up the fake news factor with this Rockefeller- and Soros-funded ‘article’ seeking to blame global warming for the 1989 Exxon Valdez,” said Marc Morano, publisher of the skeptics’ website Climate Depot.
The story suggested that Exxon should have known that the Columbia Glacier had become unstable as a result of global warming, increasing the risk of iceberg hazards, before the Exxon Valdez crashed into Alaska’s Bligh Reef after swerving to avoid an iceberg.
“What was triggering the glacier to drop icebergs at such a ferocious and ultimately disastrous pace was unclear at the time,” said the article. “But some scientists, even then, were beginning to look at climate change’s role.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a leader of the #ExxonKnew campaign, retweeted the article, calling the Exxon Valdez disaster an “early product of @ExxonMobil’s well-documented legacy actively peddling #climate denial.”
How was Exxon to “know”? The article said scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey raised the possibility in 1975 and 1978 of climate-driven iceberg hazards.
Then again, there was hardly a consensus: Energy in Depth reported that USGS studies released in 1977 and 1980 said the behavior of iceberg-calving glaciers “is apparently not directly related to climatic variations.”
Roy W. Spencer, meteorologist and principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, was also dubious, calling it “quite a stretch to blame the disaster on human-caused global warming.”
“Glaciers naturally flow to the ocean and calve. As long as it snows on them, gravity makes them flow to the ocean — no global warming required,” Mr. Spencer said in an email. “Even if calving increased in the 1980s, the warming in Alaska that abruptly started around 1980 was due to a shift in a natural climate cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), not the result of a slow warming trend due to humans.”
By the article’s logic, “anyone can blame basically anything that happens to them on climate change. Did you avoid a puddle when you hit that telephone pole? Sue Exxon!” quipped conservative columnist David Harsanyi of The Federalist.
“Somehow, since 1989, thousands of tankers have been able to ship oil from Alaska to California and avoid hitting the reef, even with the presence of a bay ‘riddled with icebergs’ that were allegedly caused by Exxon failing to take responsibility for anthropomorphic global warming in 1980s,” Mr. Harsanyi said in a Friday op-ed.
Hillary Manning, Los Angeles Times communications director, had no comment on the criticism but noted the newspaper had been transparent on the project’s funders, which include the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
The skeptics’ website Watts Up With That called the article “blindingly stupid fake news,” while the conservative Media Research Center dismissed it as a “hit piece,” saying the Los Angeles Times “has struck once again in a feeble attempt to sink ExxonMobil.”
Certainly the prominent newspaper and prestigious journalism school have a history when it comes to Exxon. An October 2015 report in the Times by the same Columbia environmental project alleged that Exxon ignored its own research on climate change, which Exxon has denied.
The article ran a month after an #ExxonKnew series in InsideClimate News, which also receives Rockefeller support. In March 2016 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman cited the reporting as the impetus for a coordinated pursuit by 17 attorneys general into climate “fraud.”
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll said in a November email that the school’s Exxon reporting “was entirely independent of the funders. The subject matter of the investigation was my initiative, on behalf of the Columbia Journalism School, not the initiative of the funders.”
Mr. Coll said the idea to investigate the internal scientific research of Exxon and other oil companies came as an outgrowth of his 2012 book criticizing Exxon, “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.”
“I approached funders about the idea and was able to persuade Rockefeller and other foundations to support our work,” Mr. Coll said. “We then proceeded to do the work on our own, without any further collaboration with the foundations or anyone else.”
The #ExxonKnew series by InsideClimate News was named a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in public service. The Pulitzers are administered by Columbia University, and Mr. Coll has been a judge since 2012.
Mr. Coll wrote his book while serving as president of the New America Foundation, “which — surprise! — is also funded by the Rockefellers,” said Ms. Brown, as well as Mr. Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
She called the insistence of editorial independence “laughable” given that Rockefeller Family Fund director Lee Wasserman took credit for the 2015 Columbia series in a Dec. 8 op-ed in The New York Review of Books.
Since its bold launch, #ExxonKnew has lost steam. No prosecutor has jumped into the fray despite the urging of the #ExxonKnew campaign, now trying to convince California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to launch an investigation.
The prosecutors who have, Mr. Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, both Democrats, are now locked in a court battle with Exxon, which has accused them of conducting a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
U.S. District Court Judge Ed Kinkeade cast doubt on the neutrality of the #ExxonKnew campaign in his March 29 order on the Exxon lawsuit, which sent the matter from a Texas court to a federal court in New York.
“The attorneys general now say they are investigating Exxon because of two different periodicals published in the fall of 2015 (arguably trying to pursue the same climate change policy agendas as the attorneys general are),” said the judge.
“The court is uncertain if it is common practice for attorneys general to begin to investigate a company after reading an article that accuses a company of possibly committing wrongdoing decades ago,” he added.
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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