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Human Rights Expert Quits Exxon Panel Over ‘Aggressive Attack Strategy’

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A human rights and corporate social responsibility specialist and former U.S. State Department official fired off a scathing letter of resignation this week to explain why she was stepping down from ExxonMobil’s External Citizenship Advisory Panel.

Sarah Labowitz, co-director of New York University’s Center for Business and Human Rights, said she was “particularly concerned about the company’s targeted attack on respected civil society organizations through the courts.” She first joined the panel in 2014.

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“Many companies face criticism and critique, but few respond with the kind of vehemence and aggressive attack strategy that Exxon has executed over the last year,” she wrote in a letter to ExxonMobil Foundation Chair Ben Soraci, who also serves as the company’s general manager of public and government affairs. “This approach is especially disappointing because there are much more effective and constructive ways to respond to such criticism.”

In particular, Labowitz took issue with Exxon’s latest legal brief in a Texas court “advancing an argument that everyday aspects of civil society advocacy with public officials should be treated as an illegal conspiracy.” She told Soraci the submission “argues that having a private meeting, conducting a workshop, publishing a report, or advocating that a public official take action are all elements of what you deem an illegal ‘conspiracy.’”

ExxonMobil media advisor William Holbrook said the company would “respectfully disagree with some of the comments made in her letter,” then focused in on Labowitz’ reference to an illegal conspiracy.

“We have never characterized any action by civil society representatives as illegal,” he said. “What we have done is defend the company, on behalf of all shareholders, from politically motivated investigations that are biased, in bad faith, and without legal merit. We did not start this, but will vigorously defend ourselves against false allegations and mischaracterizations of our climate research and investor communications.”

(Some might suggest that “start this” is pretty much what Exxon did in the 1980s, roughly a decade after an in-house scientist first reported on the dangers of climate change, when it decided to launch and fund a campaign of climate denial rather than supporting action to curb carbon pollution.)

Days before Labowitz released her letter, 18 state representatives in California urged incoming Attorney General Xavier Becerra to continue a climate fraud investigation against Exxon, first initiated by his predecessor Kamala Harris.

“You now have a unique opportunity to play a leading role in that effort, and we urge you to work to hold Exxon Mobil and others accountable for their longstanding, and potentially illegal, cover-up of the dangers of climate change,” they wrote. “We urge you to vigorously and publicly continue the state’s investigation into what ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies knew about the dangers of climate change, and what they did with that vital information.” (h/t to Fred Huette for first pointing us to the Labowitz story)