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Trial begins for Exxon, accused of misleading investors on climate change costs

Eddie Burkhalter

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Editor’s note: Eddie Burkhalter is a staff writer at Alabama Political Reporter and a fellow at the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. The program is a partnership between the Poynter Institute and the Charles Koch Institute. Charles G. Koch is director of the Charles Koch Institute and CEO of the multinational petroleum company Koch Industries.

An historic trial began Tuesday in New York to determine whether Exxon Mobil Corporation intentionally mislead investors about the costs of climate change to the giant oil company.

Alabama attorney generals since 2015 have fought on behalf of Exxon in the climate change challenges, writing to courts in part that they believed such cases were attacks on Exxon’s First Amendment protection of free speech, and that courts shouldn’t be intervening in matters handled by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The complaint filed Oct. 24, 2018, in New York alleges that Exxon used two sets of books. One set, disclosed publicly to investors, showed the company was using a “cost of carbon” estimate of $80 per ton to pay for the cost of climate change regulation, but in private the company was doing no such thing. The complaint alleges Exxon was using a much lower “cost of carbon” estimate, thereby hiding the vulnerability of the company’s assets and inflating stock prices. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James estimates that Exxon’s actions cost shareholders between $476 million and $1.6 billion. 

“This case seeks redress for a longstanding fraudulent scheme by Exxon, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies…concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change regulation,” New York wrote in a complaint. 

“The New York Attorney General’s allegations are false,” Exxon said in a statement. “We tell investors through regular disclosures how the company accounts for risks associated with climate change. We are confident in the facts and look forward to seeing our company exonerated in court.”

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The trial is the first such legal battle for a major greenhouse gas producer over climate change, and could set the stage for many more such lawsuits. 

Alabama attorneys general push back

Former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange in May 2016  joined the Texas Attorney General in support of a lawsuit by Exxon aimed at stopping a separate investigation by U.S. Virgin Island Attorney General into whether the company had mislead the public and its shareholders about the cost of climate change regulation to Exxon. 

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In June 2017 Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall joined the top lawyers in 11 other states, all members of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), in a court filing on behalf of Exxon in the company’s lawsuit against investigations by attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts. 

RAGA, a tax exempt 527 political organization, was formed in 1999 by former Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, and the nonprofit quickly began amassing donations from large corporations and making campaign contributions to Republican attorney general candidates. 

Marshall in June 2018 joined 14 other Republican attorneys general, all RAGA members, in asking a federal judge to intervene in the lawsuit for which Exxon’s trail began Tuesday, arguing in part that courts shouldn’t be involved in punishing an industry regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Forbes. 

Strange in 2014 accepted a $50,000 campaign contribution from RAGA’s political action committee, made through a separate Political Action Committee registered in Alabama. Strange returned the $50,000 after Alabama Media Group asked about the money transfer, but said the contribution didn’t violate state law banning transfers between PACs, AL.com reported. 

Marshall, an executive committee member of the Republican Attorneys General Association, accepted $735,000 in campaign contributions from the Republican Attorneys General Action Fund PAC in 2017. 

Marshall’s opponents during that election cycle accused him of accepting an illegal PAC-to-PAC contribution, but the Alabama Ethics Commission declined to act on a complaint on the same. 

Marshall’s campaign told reporters at the time that the donation was legal, as the state’s law doesn’t apply to federal PACs, although, as AL.com noted, the Alabama Ethics Commission director had told other campaigns that such contributions were illegal. 

According to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a progressive nonprofit watchdog group, ExxonMobile has contributed at least $100,000 to RAGA since 2015. 

In total, fossil fuel companies and special interest groups connected to them have donated more than $2.5 million to RAGA since 2015, according to CMD, including $350,000 from Koch Industries, $85,000 from Southern Company, $378,250 from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, and $250,000 from Murray Energy. 

Former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange spoke alongside fossil fuel industry lobbyists at a closed-door meeting at the July 2016 summit hosted by RAGA in Colorado, according to audio recordings of the event, published by CMD

In attendance and another speaker at the meeting was the notable climate change denier, Myron Ebell, who is the director of Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a libertarian think tank that promotes climate change denial and receives funds from the fossil fuel industry, including Exxon, which contributed at least $2.1 million to the group until it stopped doing so in 2007.

Dark money contributions to CEI from the secretive Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund ballooned in the years following 2007, however. CEI received $4.3m over three years from those two dark money funds, according to The Guardian. Among the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund’s biggest contributors, according to The Independent, have been indirect contributions from Charles Koch, the billionaire CEO of Koch Industries. 

“So right now the climate inquisition is in retreat,” Ebell told attendees, according to the transcript. “It’s in retreat because of what ExxonMobil has done. What CEI has done. And what a number of the attorneys general here today have done, in supporting our rights to free speech and freedom of association.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Economy

Alabama Gulf Coast beaches remain closed for now

Brandon Moseley

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that beaches will remain closed for now due to ongoing repair and cleanup efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sally.

“Working closely with Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, as well as Commissioner Billy Joe Underwood, the governor has agreed to keep Baldwin County’s beaches closed until Friday, October 2nd,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “This will allow those communities additional time to get their beaches ready for public enjoyment in a safe, responsible manner.”

Mobile County beaches might open earlier than that.

“Likewise, the governor has been in touch with Mayor Jeff Collier, and she is prepared to amend the beach closure order for Mobile County when he signals that Dauphin Island is ready to reopen their beaches,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “At the present time, all Alabama beaches remain closed until further notice.”

Hurricane Sally came ashore near Gulf Shores on Sept. 16 as a category two hurricane with 105 mile per hour winds. Numerous homes, businesses and farms have been destroyed and many more have seen serious damage.

“As of Wednesday night, approx. 37,000 cubic yards of Hurricane Sally debris (equivalent to roughly 1,700 truck loads worth) has been picked up in Orange Beach since Sunday (4 days),” the city of Orange Beach announced. “Kudos to our debris contractor CrowderGulf.”

“I spent Sunday afternoon meeting with senior staff and I believe we will need some time to get our buildings safe for children to return,” said Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Taylor in a letter to parents. “We live in a very large county. Power may be on in your area and your school may not have any damage, but we cannot open schools unless all schools can open. Our pacing guides, state testing, meal and accountability requirements are based on the system, not individual schools.”

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“We have schools without power and for which we do not expect power until later this week,” Taylor said. “In this new age, we need internet and communications which are currently down so we cannot run any system tests. We have physical damage at our schools including some with standing water, collapsed ceilings and blown out windows. We have debris on our properties and debris blocking our transportation teams from picking up students. All of this must be resolved before we can successfully re-open.”

“If everything goes as planned, I expect we will welcome back students on Wednesday, September 30,” Taylor said. “Prior to returning students to school, we will hold two teacher work days to get our classrooms and our lessons plans back on track.”

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Environment

Bidens suggest that Hurricane Sally due to climate change

Brandon Moseley

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A satellite image of Hurricane Sally. (VIA NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE)

Former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, released a joint statement this week on Hurricane Sally, suggesting that the hurricane and fires in the West are due in part to or exacerbated by climate change.

“Jill and I are praying for everyone from the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida and up the East Coast into the Carolinas as Hurricane Sally unleashes fury and flood that are leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power and evacuating their homes and businesses,” the Bidens wrote. “Our hearts are also with everyone in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and across the West who have lost everything and the firefighters and first responders who are risking their lives as the wildfires rage on and ash falls from an orange sky.”

“Every year the devastating impacts of climate change — in billions of dollars in damage, in immeasurable loss of lives and livelihoods — sets new records of destruction in big cities, small towns, on coastlines, and farmlands across the country,” the Bidens wrote. “It is happening everywhere. It is happening now. And it’s all happening while we fight off a historic pandemic and economic recession.”

But it doesn’t have to be this bad, the Bidens wrote.

“We have to come together as a nation guided by science that can save lives,” the Bidens wrote. “And grounded by economics that can create millions of American jobs — union jobs — to make us safe, stronger, and more resilient to a changing climate and extreme weather that will only come with more frequency and ferocity.”

“And we have to keep the faith in the capacity of the American people — to act, not deny, to lead, not scapegoat, and to care for each other and generations to come,” the Bidens concluded.

Hurricanes are not new to the Alabama Gulf Shore. Since 1852, at least 27 hurricanes have hit the state of Alabama gulf coast, with Katrina in 2005 being the most recent until Sally on Wednesday.

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By comparison there were four hurricanes to strike the state between 1912 and 1917 and five between 1852 and 1860.

Democrats claim that President Donald Trump’s policies on climate change are having a negative effect on the planet and that a Biden administration would be better at reducing U.S. CO2 emissions.

Biden and Trump will be on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

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Environment

Plume site under downtown Montgomery removed from EPA superfund priority list

Josh Moon

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Downtown Montgomery (STOCK PHOTO)

A toxic plume that formed underneath several blocks of downtown Montgomery is being removed from the EPA’s superfund priority list after years of cleanup efforts have reduced the threat to the public, the agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management announced on Wednesday. 

Known as the Capital City Plume, the 50-block area of contaminated groundwater and soil covered much of downtown Montgomery and required millions of dollars in remediation costs. The city, county and a coalition of downtown businesses took control of the site in 2015, in an agreement with the EPA, and sped up cleanup efforts. 

The site was first discovered in 1993 and the EPA took control shortly thereafter, but very little remediation occurred because the agency could not definitively identify businesses that were responsible for the contamination.

The city’s agreement with EPA put to rest the issue of responsibility and allowed for a shared responsibility that apparently resulted in faster cleanup. 

“This is validation of all the hard work by many parties – city, county, state, federal and business entities – over many years to address and resolve a real environmental challenge,” said ADEM Director Lance LeFleur. “It couldn’t have happened without all the parties deciding we needed a plan to tackle the problem and agreeing to work together to carry it out. Now, this area of downtown Montgomery that has already seen significant redevelopment and reuse can blossom even more.”

The removal of the site from the National Priorities List should also remove burdensome and costly testing that hampered additional growth in many areas of downtown Montgomery. 

“This announcement charts a path forward for our community and is essential to our vision for a stronger, more vibrant downtown core,” Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said. “We commend the collaboration and steady resolve of the Alliance, ADEM, the EPA and everyone involved in doing what is right for our city and our region. Moving forward, we are committed to continue building on this success as we expand economic opportunity and progress in Montgomery.”

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The Downtown Alliance, as the collection of businesses, city, county and state government entities was known, was the brainchild of former Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange and attorneys negotiating with the EPA. At the time, it was a first-of-its-kind agreement.

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Environment

Alabama Power extends summer pool on Lake Martin into fall

Brandon Moseley

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(ALABAMA TOURISM DEPARTMENT)

Last week, Alabama Power announced that it is extending the summer pool on Lake Martin into fall, allowing more boating and recreational opportunities than would be possible if the implementation of the winter drawdown began last Tuesday as scheduled.

Hydro Services manager Jim Crew said that the fall extension is granted because water is plentiful throughout the Tallapoosa and Coosa river basins and conditions are met at Alabama Power dams across the system.

Until Oct. 15, Lake Martin’s water level will remain at 491 feet mean sea level. After that date, the level gradually will be drawn down to 484 feet mean sea level by the third week of November. The seasonal drawdown has several advantages, the most important of which is flood prevention. The winter pool level provides storage space in the reservoir system for spring rains.

At the local level, the lower water allows repairs and improvements to docks that are underwater during the summer. The drawdown also allows more access to the lake bottom during winter cleanup efforts and assists in the control of some invasive weed species along the shoreline as well.

Alexander City Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ed Collari said that extending the summer pool level offers economic benefits to Lake Martin communities that provide services to part-time lake residents and visitors.

“Economically, that’s great news for our community,” Collari said. “The increased lake levels will allow people to continue to enjoy the lake into the fall. We’ve seen already this year what having people here around the lake will do, as that’s reflected in our community sales tax levels. The higher water level will encourage people to spend more time in our communities.”

Alabama Power is licensed to operate Martin Dam and manage the reservoir. The license stipulates Sept. 1 as the drawdown commencement date unless four specific criteria are met, indicating that the system of reservoirs on the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers contains enough water to maintain navigation levels downstream.

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The conditional fall extension of the summer pool is new to the licensing terms for Lake Martin. It was not included in license terms of Alabama Power’s earlier licenses, but the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission added it to the license issued in December 2015 after the lake community overwhelmingly argued for it.

Analysis of data at that time indicated the fall extension could be expected to occur about once every four years; however, this is the third year since the license has been in effect the fall extension has been granted.

Rainfall has been far above average in the Lake Martin area this year. Normal precipitation for the period of January through August is just under 39 inches, but more than 54 inches of rain have fallen in the lake area so far, according to the National Weather Service.

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Alabama Power representatives urge boaters to enjoy the extension of summer safely.

Individuals with boats and other water-related equipment and facilities should always be alert to changing conditions on Alabama Power reservoirs and be prepared to take the necessary steps to protect their properties.

Manmade lakes across Alabama provide fishing, boating and recreational opportunities to people across Alabama. It also provides habitat for wildlife including ducks, geese, turtles and many other water birds including seagulls.

The lakes provide plenty of cheap, renewable electric power through the hydro-electric dams Alabama Power operates while increasing shoreline habitat and flood control.

For more information about Alabama Power lakes, download the new Smart Lakes app or visit apcshorelines.com. You can call 800-525-3711 for lake condition updates.

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