DC Think Tank Says Major Donation Not Behind Involvement in Boulder Climate Lawsuit
A libertarian group providing legal support in the climate lawsuit filed by three Colorado communities against energy producers received a major donation in February from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), a wealthy foundation at the heart of the activist campaigns against the industry.
The RBF’s online grant database shows a $200,000 donation to the Niskanen Center “for its climate program” dated February 22, 2018. The lawsuit, which seeks damages from Suncor and ExxonMobil, was filed Tuesday.
Boulder County’s announcement of the lawsuit noted that legal support would be provided by EarthRights International, the Denver-based Hannon Law Firm and the Niskanen Center.
David Bookbinder, chief counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Niskanen Center and co-counsel for the Colorado lawsuit, said that the donation did not influence the think tank’s decision to join the litigation. The Niskanen Center has not played a public role in similar litigation being brought forward in California and New York City.
“Niskanen is the leading center-right organization working on carbon tax issues. And we’ve been working on carbon tax issues since Niskanen was founded about three years ago,” Bookbinder told Western Wire. “So we’ve had a climate program since day one. And that’s support for the climate program. We don’t think of this case as part really of the climate program. This falls more under property rights issues.”
Bookbinder said Niskanen got involved in the lawsuit because of the group’s views on property rights. When asked, he said there were no stipulations attached to the RBF grant dictating where the money should be allocated within the climate program.
The RBF is a New York-based foundation focusing on sustainability and environmentalist causes and has funded activist campaigns against the energy industry. The RBF has joined with the affiliated Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF) to specifically target ExxonMobil—one of the two defendants in the Colorado lawsuit—with activist efforts, sponsoring shareholder resolutions, funding investigative journalism, and convincing state attorneys general to investigate the company.
“What we had funded was an investigative journalism project,” wrote RFF President David Kaiser and RFF Director Lee Wasserman in an essay for the New York Review of Books. “With help from other public charities and foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), we paid for a team of independent reporters from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to try to determine what Exxon and other US oil companies had really known about climate science, and when.”
Kaiser and Wasserman also stated in their essay that they had “informed state attorneys general of our concern that ExxonMobil seemed to have failed to disclose to investors the business risks of climate change.” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an investigation into ExxonMobil in November 2015.
The city and county officials suing the energy companies have emphasized that taxpayers will not be responsible for legal costs, since they will be assisted by nonprofit groups on a pro-bono basis. The private law firm working on the case will represent Boulder on a 20-percent contingency fee.
Since nonprofit groups depend on donations to fund their operations, some were skeptical of Niskanen’s motivation.
Referring to donations from environmentalist foundations, Thomas Pyle, President of the American Energy Alliance, told Western Wire, “It is no surprise that the Niskanen Center joined this frivolous Boulder lawsuit. At least on the issue of climate change, (Niskanen President) Jerry Taylor lost his libertarian calling card a long time ago.”
The Niskanen Center has received at least $350,000 from the Energy Foundation and also received a grant of $300,000 from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to support the Center’s “climate policy and litigation program.”
Bookbinder was not aware of what the “litigation program” referred to in the Hewlett Foundation donation description, but added, “that’s not for this… there may be litigation attached to climate work but we don’t think of [the Boulder case] as climate litigation.”
It’s unclear how Niskanen’s funding is allocated and if donations for specific purposes are siphoned off from other areas of the organization. When asked whether the property rights work was separate from the climate program, Bookbinder told Western Wire, “We’re small enough that there aren’t divisions and departments and things like that, if only there were.”