Oil Baron's Descendants Shame Exxon Mobil For 'Morally Reprehensible Conduct'

The Rockefeller Family Fund announced it is divesting from fossil fuels and threw shade on Exxon Mobil in the process.
  • The Rockefeller Family Fund will divest from fossil fuels, prioritizing Exxon Mobil holdings.

  • The fund’s statement rips Exxon Mobil for allegedly deceiving the public about climate change.

  • The decision by a nonprofit trust born of oil wealth carries symbolic weight.

  • A recent ruling by the SEC also requires company shareholders to vote on a climate change resolution.

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil. The FBI is considering whether to investigate the company for deliberately misleading the public about climate change.
Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil. The FBI is considering whether to investigate the company for deliberately misleading the public about climate change.
CNBC/Getty Images

The Rockefeller Family Fund is divesting from major segments of the fossil fuel industry, the fund said in an announcement that also singled out Exxon Mobil for blistering criticism.

The nonprofit trust, which was started by the heirs of the industrial-era oil monopolist John D. Rockefeller, called Exxon Mobil’s alleged efforts to cover up evidence of climate change “morally reprehensible conduct” in a Wednesday statement.

The fund, which provides grants to further environmentalism, women's rights and corporate and government accountability, is the latest in a long list of institutions to divest from oil, gas or coal holdings.

With assets of $130 million, the trust is hardly the largest institution to make the leap. (The significantly larger Rockefeller Brothers Fund, another family philanthropic venture, made the divestment pledge in September 2014.)

The day before the announcement, the Securities and Exchange Commission dealt Exxon another setback. On Tuesday, the SEC ruled in favor of a group of shareholders who are pushing the company closer to disclosing its vulnerability to climate change and new government regulations.

But the fund's stinging indictment of Exxon Mobil, part of a new escalation of investor-driven climate change advocacy, is especially notable because it comes from the heirs of the Standard Oil fortune, the mega-company from which Exxon Mobil first emerged.

“Evidence appears to suggest that the company worked since the 1980s to confuse the public about climate change’s march, while simultaneously spending millions to fortify its own infrastructure against climate change’s destructive consequences and track new exploration opportunities as the Arctic’s ice receded,” the fund's statement says. “Appropriate authorities will determine if the company violated any laws, but as a matter of good governance, we cannot be associated with a company exhibiting such apparent contempt for the public interest.”

In the first stage of its divestment process, the fund will immediately eliminate all Exxon Mobil holdings, as well as all investments in coal and “tar sands-based companies” that the fund holds directly. directly managed by the fund, rather than outside asset managers. It will limit its “exposures for these three categories of investment” to less than 1 percent of its holdings. The second stage will involve divesting from other fossil fuels the fund holds directly, and all fossil fuels held in commingled funds.

"That is a longer process because these commingled funds are very difficult to get out of and we have to be very cognizant of our fiduciary duty to the institution," said Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund.

Exxon Mobil's potential involvement in denying climate science first came to light in the fall, when Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times published explosive reports suggesting the company had privately acknowledged the reality of climate change even as it cast doubt on the science in public. After those reports, Reps. Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier, Democratic congressmen from California, asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether the oil giant violated federal laws like the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. (The federal government used RICO to press charges against tobacco companies 1999, claiming they had engaged in a conspiracy to suppress evidence of tobacco products’ health risks.) Earlier this month, the DOJ asked the FBI to look into whether Exxon Mobil acted illegally.

Exxon, for its part, brushed off the Rockefeller Family Fund’s divestment decision.

“It's not surprising that they're divesting from the company since they're already funding a conspiracy against us,” the company said in a statement.

The company pointed to the fund’s financial support for Inside Climate News and the Columbia University Journalism School, the latter of which collaborated with the Los Angeles Times on its series of stories about Exxon. Exxon called the influential reporting backed by the fund “inaccurate and deliberately misleading stories about ExxonMobil’s history of climate research.”

Wasserman said the grant to Inside Climate News was made without any knowledge that it would be used for the reporting project. The grant to Columbia Journalism School was directed at "public interest research into what the fossil fuel industry understood about the science of climate change and how they acted given that understanding both internally and regarding the public," but it did not target Exxon Mobil specifically, Wasserman said.

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