Exxon-funded analysis criticizes study that claimed company misled public about climate change

By John O'Brien | Mar 3, 2018

FORT WORTH, Texas (Legal Newsline) - Harvard professors who say their analysis proves ExxonMobil misled the public about climate change were obviously biased, a colleague says, and the company says that data shouldn't be used to help a “corrupt enterprise” of private lawyers and California officials suing the energy sector.

FORT WORTH, Texas (Legal Newsline) - Harvard professors who say their analysis proves ExxonMobil misled the public about climate change were obviously biased, a colleague says, and the company says their data shouldn't be used to help a “corrupt enterprise” of private lawyers and California officials suing the energy sector.

In papers filed by the company March 1 in a Texas state court, Cleveland State University communications professor Kimberly Neuendorf criticizes a 2017 study that accuses Exxon of misleading the public about climate change in its statements from 1977-2014. In fact, its authors had already made up their minds about the issue years earlier, with one of them even announcing it on Twitter in 2015. 

"Content analysis coding ought to be conducted with coders who are at arm’s-length with regard to the research, in order to maximize objectivity," wrote Neuendorf, who conducted her review at the behest of Exxon. "Optimally, coders should be blind to the research questions or goals. 

"In the S&O study, the coders were not blind. In fact, they were as non-blind as could be imagined. They were the investigators themselves, as well as an affiliated graduate student. In this particular case, the problematic nature of informed coders is magnified by the coders’ longtime and intensive involvement in the popular communication of climate change."


Neuendorf  

Authors Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes claimed to have found “a discrepancy between what ExxonMobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change privately and in academic circles and what it presented to the general public,” but Neuendorf takes issue with those results.

“I have concluded that S&O’s content analysis does not support the study’s conclusion because of a variety of fundamental errors in their analysis,” Neuendorf wrote. “S&O’s content analysis lacks reliability, validity, objectivity, generalizability and replicability.

“These basic standards of scientific inquiry are vital for a proper content analysis, but they are not satisfied by the S&O study.”

The attachment is part of Exxon’s argument that its effort to question and possibly sue several California officials should occur in a Texas state court in Tarrant County.

Exxon is challenging the assertions of those officials responsible for climate change lawsuits against many companies in the fossil fuel industry, like Exxon, Chevron and BP. In an earlier court filing, Exxon wondered how these California officials could allege a catastrophic flooding event caused by global warming is imminent without having disclosed that information to potential investors when they issued bond offerings.

The company says its speech is “Texas-based” and has bemoaned the “La Jolla Playbook,” a strategy instituted at a 2012 conference in that city by private attorneys, activists and government officials to pressure the oil and gas industry.

Oreskes, a Harvard University professor, was a key organizer, Exxon says. She and co-author Geoffrey Supran, also a Harvard professor, publicized their findings in a New York Times op-ed.

They analyzed 187 documents, classifying Exxon’s stance on climate change in each as either real, human-caused, serious or solvable.

“Scientific reports and articles written or cowritten by Exxon Mobil employees acknowledged that global warming was a real and serious threat,” Oreskes and Supran wrote. “They also noted it could be addressed by reducing fossil fuel use, meaning that fossil fuel reserves might one day become stranded assets.”

Not so, writes Neuendorf. She identified seven fundamental flaws in the S&O study:

-Using coders who were already biased against Exxon, citing one of Oreskes’ tweets from two years earlier that said Exxon misled the public (it said “Did Exxon deliberately mislead the public on climate change? Hello. Of course they did!”;

-Sampling of climate communications that was not objective or consistent – “the selection process groups together statements as though they were issued by a single corporate entity during times when Exxon Corporation and Mobil Oil Corporation were separate companies and misleadingly presents them as though they were issued by a unitary entity”;

-Using a complex scheme that deviates from the standards of content analysis in several ways, like allowing context outside the studied documents to guide coding;

-A lack of research questions and a lack of disclosure as to why some documents were selected to be analyzed;

-Content analysis can’t legitimately be used to reach conclusions about the effect particular statements have on the public; and

-Using a technique called consensus measure, which Neuendorf says is a conclusion in search of a method.

“S&O provide no scientific support for either a discrepancy among ExxonMobil’s climate change communications, or a claim that ExxonMobil misled the public,” she concluded.

On Jan. 8, Exxon took the first step towards suing those who orchestrated climate change lawsuits in California by asking the Tarrant County District Court to allow it to question an assortment of government officials and a Hagens Berman lawyer, Matt Pawa.

The company says those local officials are talking out of both sides of their mouths - blaming Exxon for an impending flooding disaster while not disclosing that alleged threat to possible investors in their bond offerings.

In 2017, the counties of Marin, Santa Cruz and San Mateo and the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Imperial Beach filed suit against dozens of energy companies, including Exxon and 17 other Texas-based businesses, over climate change. The lawsuits were filed by private lawyers working on contingency fees.

The company has previously been targeted by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York, and the California city of Richmond, home to a Chevron refinery, filed its lawsuit this year.

“It is reasonable to infer that the municipalities brought these lawsuits not because of a bona fide belief in any tortious conduct by the defendants or actual damage to their jurisdictions, but instead to coerce ExxonMobil and others operating in the Texas energy sector to adopt policies aligned with those favored by local politicians in California,” attorneys for the company wrote.

In doing so, they must have lied to potential investors in their respective bond offerings, the company claims.

Statements made to potential investors contradict allegations made by the municipalities when they sued the energy industry, Exxon says. 

San Mateo County’s complaint says it is “particularly vulnerable to sea level rise” and that there is a 93% chance the county experiences a “devastating” flood before 2050. However, bond offerings in 2014 and 2016 noted that the county “is unable to predict whether sea-level rise or other impacts of climate change or flooding from a major storm will occur."

Exxon, in its March 1 filing, says the Texas court should exercise personal jurisdiction over Pawa and the California officials.

“The long-arm statute grants Texas courts jurisdiction over nonresidents who commit torts in whole or in part in Texas, independent of whether those nonresidents are municipalities or municipal employees,” the company says.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O’Brien at john.obrien@therecordinc.com.

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