Scientist Group Catalyzes Gov’t Suits Against Energy Companies

Nonprofit offers to cover expenses for government officials' speaking appearances

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The nonprofit group Union of Concerned Scientists continues to operate behind the scenes to encourage, promote, and orchestrate positive publicity for government lawsuits against energy companies, according to emails obtained via open records.

This June, Santa Cruz mayor Martine Watkins traveled to Honolulu to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors summer meeting to talk about her city's lawsuit against Exxon and other energy producers. The California mayor was also boosting a resolution voicing support for cities' rights to sue oil companies and others.

Emails obtained by the Washington Free Beacon show that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) first approached Santa Cruz officials about the idea of Mayor Watkins appearing there.

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"If Mayor Watkins would be interested in these [speaking opportunities], we would also request a briefing for her—and other relevant staff, possibly in your office as well—to help prepare for the activities," one of the emails from UCS to Santa Cruz read. "UCS has some new information to share that could be of interest."

The emails show that UCS was willing to underwrite most if not all of Watkins's travel. Watkins appears to have paid travel expenses out of her own pocket, but UCS paid for her conference registration fees.

That same email said, "We have also been reaching out to other mayors to participate," indicating the effort was broader than simply arranging Watkins's appearance at Honolulu.

UCS defended their efforts in an emailed response to the Free Beacon.

"We believe municipalities have every right to sue fossil fuel companies for damages these companies knowingly caused, just as tobacco companies knew their product was causing cancer but lied about this knowledge," said Lisa Nurnberger, media director for UCS. "As part of this work, we believed it could be useful for other city leaders to hear from Mayor Watkins."

Before attending the conference in Hawaii, Watkins touted the event in her hometown newspaper the Santa Cruz Sentinel and mentioned that taxpayer funds would not be used. The editorial omitted that UCS was paying registration fees.

Watkins did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In previous reporting by the Free Beacon, Watkins confirmed that UCS paid her registration fees, but ignored follow-up questions including whether the UCS payment of those fees complied with all city and state ethical guidelines.

"The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems," the group's "About Us" webpage reads. "Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future."

The UCS "About Us" webpage makes no mention of the group's promotion of the numerous ongoing government lawsuits in Santa Cruz and other major cities such as Oakland, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Boulder, Colorado.

"You can find plenty of information on our website about our work holding fossil fuel companies accountable," Nurnberger added.

The nonprofit also has a "senior strategist" for a "Fossil Fuel Accountability campaign." More emails obtained in the open records request showed that in late April, that strategist was on location in Boulder, Colorado, to consult with local government officials about their lawsuit.

Numerous documents were withheld because of some government exemptions to the California Public Records Act.

Most or all of the government lawsuits against oil producers are being handled by third-party attorneys working on a contingency fee basis, meaning they are not paid unless the suit is successful in some way in creating a damages award or if a judge were to award attorneys' fees against the defendants.

Even though third-party attorneys handle the litigation, the lawsuits still contain the same weight as if the city attorney or attorney general was handling them from within the office.