No, Kamala Harris Did Not Sue Exxon Mobil

Harris inaccurately touted environmental record at CNN climate town hall

Kamala Harris / Getty Images
September 6, 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris inaccurately claimed during Wednesday's CNN climate town hall that she sued oil giant Exxon Mobil.

When asked by CNN's Erin Burnett if she would sue Exxon Mobil as president, Harris responded, "I have sued Exxon Mobil" to applause.

But Harris has not sued Exxon Mobil. As California attorney general, she launched a 2016 investigation into the oil company. The investigation, however, "stalled when Harris decided to run for the Senate," according to the Los Angeles Times. A department spokesman confirmed to the Washington Free Beacon that the attorney general's office had not sued the company.

The Harris campaign did not respond to request for comment.

Harris has come under fire from both free market activists and environmentalists.

Harris benefited politically from the investigation, but a lawsuit never followed. She received more than $70,000 from environmentalist groups during the 2016 and 2018 cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. One environmental organization cited the investigation as the "direct" reason it endorsed her Senate campaign.

She touted the investigation on the trail. At a 2016 Fresno campaign event, Harris told one activist she was "confident" the investigation would result in prosecution.

"I’m suing them," Harris said. "Investigating first, then suing."

The activist later told Climate Liability News that "nothing happened" after the exchange, adding that Harris appeared to prioritize her Senate campaign over the investigation. Environmentalists echoed those sentiments, telling the Los Angeles Times that the investigation "stalled when Harris decided to run for the Senate."

Energy in Depth, a project of the trade group Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a blog post that Harris had never pursued litigation against Exxon Mobil.

"In the midst of pandering to climate activists, Sen. Harris falsely claimed she had sued Exxon Mobil," the group said. "The climate activists that had pushed her to do just that were the quickest to call her out on her lie."

When Harris's Senate bid proved successful, the investigation fell to her successor, Attorney General Xavier Becerra. He, too, was criticized over the probe's inaction, with one environmental group calling it "troubling" that "current state attorney general Xavier Becerra is failing to stand up to Exxon Mobil" in 2018.

Harris's more recent efforts to support legal disputes against oil companies are clouded by big-money interests.

In March, Harris joined five other Democratic senators in a brief supporting disputes against Big Oil in Oakland and San Francisco. The lawsuits are contingency fee cases, meaning they are handled by private attorneys set to make millions of dollars if successful. City officials supervise progress and are not responsible for most of the work—in fact, the initial idea of the lawsuit did not even originate with the California cities involved.

As previously reported by the Washington Free Beacon, attorneys at one major firm, Sher Edling, actively pitched the idea of the lawsuit to the city of San Francisco via email.

"The links below describe the lawsuits we recently filed on behalf of Marin and San Mateo County as well as the city of Imperial Beach," firm partner Matt Edling said in an email to San Francisco's senior environment adviser. "My partner, Vic Sher and I would love to chat with you about the cases and the work we are doing."

While Oakland and San Francisco were initially represented by the law firm of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, LLC, the cities hired Sher Edling to represent their appeal when lower courts dismissed those suits.

Harris, who formerly served as San Francisco district attorney, has accepted more than $20,000 in political contributions from attorneys at the two firms, including more than $13,000 from founding partners Steve Berman and Vic Sher.

Exxon Mobil did not return request for comment.