The court case over whether ExxonMobil may have deliberately downplayed the potential dangers of global warming is heating up. Eleven attorney generals have filed a brief in US District Court in Manhattan supporting a lawsuit by Exxon to halt a probe by their peers in New York and Massachusetts.

Much of the fodder for the original suit results from an ongoing set of stories that originated in the Los Angeles Times in an unusual partnership with the Columbia School of Journalism - an administrator there was given free hand by the paper to allege whatever she wanted. In the latest installment of the Times’ saga, the paper claimed that the oil giant was aware that the glacier that caused the Exxon Valdez disaster (on March 24, 1989, the tanker ran aground on the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, causing the 54th largest spill in history) was destined to break up, inevitably causing the spill. 

“That such a catastrophe might happen was not news to the company,” wrote the reporting team, led by Susanne Rust.

It was a dramatic claim, but the facts of the story and the conflicted history of the lead reporter have raised serious ethical questions.

The scientific claims boil down to this: warming had started to accelerate, though barely when the accident happened (Columbia Glacier grew into the mid-1980s); some glaciers are growing but more are shrinking; a leading glaciologist, the authors reported, said it was unlikely that scientists at the time would have linked the glacier break-up to climate change; and Exxon subsequently funded an “ice monitoring project” to assess whether climate may have played in the glacier’s breakup. 

Exxon Valdez. Credit: NOAA

Those are the smoking guns, if they can be called that.

The story itself makes clear that Exxon did not have convincing evidence, based on the science known at that time, that climate change, entering an intensified warming phase, could trigger such a catastrophe (“It is like trying to forecast an earthquake,” said one official.”) Hundreds of ships had run the narrows where the accident occurred in those months without incident. What instead distinguished this case was an inebriated captain and overworked crew. But in the current over-heated climate around climate change, charges that Exxon was a knowing miscreant have obvious political appeal.

Who is Susanne Rust?

Shaping speculation as accusation is not new territory for lead reporter Susanne Rust. She is not a Times journalist but instead an administrator who works for the Columbia School of Journalism (CSJ), and oversaw the piece. A veteran investigative journalist, known as much for her activism as her reporting, she directs the energy and environment project at CSJ, whose focus to date has been to allege ExxonMobil is obstructionist on climate change policy and that the company is a funder of climate skeptics. Rust has overseen other Times’ articles on ExxonMobil and her research team has cooperated with InsideClimateNews, an environmental advocacy journalism group and longtime Exxon critic. 

Columbia, where Rust has worked with graduate journalism students on various ExxonMobil stories since 2013, is the latest stop in a long activist career. She was recruited by Steve Coll, the journalism school dean and a former Washington Post editor, who wrote Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. They have known each other for years and she had helped him with some of his research on the company.

Rust had previously spent five years at California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, an information outlet whose funders include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a partisan foundation that has provided tens of millions of dollars in recent years to finance various campaigns against ExxonMobil. 

Rust cut her investigative eye teeth in a 7-year stint with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that resulted in numerous journalism awards, yet she also earned a reputation for working the edges of ethical science journalism, playing loose with the data to fit a predetermined narrative.

A capstone of her notoriety came in a public TV appearance in 2008 on Bill Moyers’ investigative program Exposé. “Chemicals In Our Food” was the title based on the paper’s multi-series, “Chemical Fallout.”

“There may be a potentially dangerous chemical leaching into our food from the containers that we use every day,” Moyers said to open the show.

Formerly a little-reputed paper, the Journal Sentinel had been making waves in environmental circles with its evisceration of the once obscure chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA as it’s widely known, and the regulators charged with overseeing it, claiming: 

Even though studies show that the chemical bisphenol-A can cause cancer and other health problems in lab animals, the manufacturers, their lobbyists, and U.S. regulators say it's safe.

That conclusion, soaked with innuendo, startled informed science journalists covering the issue and also concerned scientists, as it contrasted with the findings of every major international independent regulatory body in North America, Asia and Europe. BPA is a compound used to add strength and flexibility to plastic products, from the protective lining of metal cans to bottles to dental sealants. In many cases, there are no safe alternatives and has been used with no effect since the 1950s.

The evidence of BPA’s harm Moyers cited as fact has always been suspect. According to the latest summary provided by US Food and Drug Administration, “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods.” But according to former lead investigative reporter Rust and her team, who still stand behind their original conclusions, BPA is a toxic time bomb and the government is involved in a conspiracy and cover-up amounting to medical malpractice.

The paper’s multipart series claiming dangers of BPA thrust the heretofore unheralded Milwaukee paper and Rust into the spotlight. The articles predictably led to an explosion of copycat reports in everything from the New York Times (Nicholas Kristoff became an anti-BPA evangelist and an embarrassment to science journalists) to Dr. Oz alternative science favorites like Consumer Reports, all of which followed an unambiguous conspiracy narrative: BPA is found in 93% of people’s urine (left out of the story it that it's at levels far below toxic relevance); claims it causes cancer and disrupts fetal development; federal regulators are aware of its dangers; and echoing themes that would surface in subsequent reporting on ExxonMobil, the industry financed ‘junk science’ studies and the government kowtowed to lobbyists to keep this ‘dangerous’ substance on the market. 

Rust and her team busted the alleged ‘cover-up’ with a series that won prestigious George Polk and John B. Oakes awards, and fell just short of a Pulitzer. In large measure in reaction to the series, Congress held hearings and the Obama Administration authorized spending tens of millions of dollars for more reviews. In 2014 alone, the US Food and Drug Administration vetted 161 new studies about the potential health effects of BPA, mostly to try to ‘prove’ Rust’s [and activist scientists’] controversial belief that the dose-response curve doesn't work for BPA, that small, often immeasurable exposure doses can somehow seriously ‘disrupt’ the human endocrine system.

In other words, the dose doesn't make the poison for BPA like it does everything else. Trace amounts accomplish toxicological and biological wizardry.

BPA case falls apart

The only problem: It’s without question that Rust and her team got the science on BPA entirely wrong. Much of the data Rust drew upon were speculative, based on correlation studies and unreliable animal tests - scientists know that rats are not little people, but activists don't. As Science reported earlier this year, tens of millions of dollars spent by the US for BPA research was money down the drain. “None [of the 161 studies] reported an effect at small doses”—a direct rebuke of the now-outdated ‘low dose endocrine disruption’ (ED) theory that continues to fuel questionable journalism on chemical-related issues.

The list of international, independent agencies who have wasted upwards of a billion dollars on this effort, and have since weighed in to rebuke Rust’s reporting, is startling. In the years after the series fell just short of winning a Pulitzer Prize:

  • A comprehensive review by the German Society of Toxicology of thousands of studies on BPA concluded, “[BPA] exposure represents no noteworthy risk to the health of the human population, including newborns and babies.” The group, which included several scientists who had previously advised regulatory caution on BPA, rebuffed calls by advocacy groups to lower safe exposure levels.
  • A joint UN Food and Agriculture Organization/WHO expert panel on BPA and the USFDA also weighed in, both exculpating the chemical. After independently assessing hundreds of studies, FDA concluded: “FDA has performed extensive research and reviewed hundreds of studies about BPA’s safety. We reassure consumers that current approved uses of BPA in food containers and packaging are safe.”
  • The hyper-precautionary European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a comprehensive analysis of the safety of dietary exposures to bisphenol-A (BPA) finding, "no consumer health risk from bisphenol-A exposure."

Two distinguished government toxicologists, Ronald Lorentzen at the FDA and David Hattan with Health and Human Services, were so disgusted by what they believed was “biased” reporting by Rust and then other journalists, and comments by scientists who seemed to have a personal stake in indicting BPA and promoting the failed ED theory, that they wrote an unprecedented letter to Nature about the controversy, concluding:

[T]he BPA episode has revealed the general inexperience of many in the experimental scientific community to the intricacies of risk assessment and the necessity of employing risk management judgments in any comprehensive determination of human safety.

But scientists could not roll back the impact of the misrepresentations in the Rust investigation that had captured headlines and blown-up the Internet. Googling “BPA” and “harmful” today turns up 496,000 entries, including 6,540 results for one of the most outrageous, inaccurate and widely circulated stories, “BPA Wrecks Sex,” which was generated by a blog post by the Environmental Working Group.

It’s classic ‘fake news’, the kind of alternative facts environmentalist activists use to scare people.

This brand of ‘aggressive’ reporting, blessed by some elements in the journalism establishment, has endangered public safety. Facing reporting-induced near hysteria stirred by anti-BPA campaigners, companies have phased out use of the chemical; notice the “BPA free” stickers on many plastic bottles, for example. But study after study now shows the various replacements are less tested and could be actually, rather than theoretically, harmful. Professor Richard Sharpe, Group Leader of the Male Reproductive Health Research Team at the University of Edinburgh, in February in the wake of the latest findings about BPA substitutes:

As far as regulatory bodies such as EFSA and FDA are concerned there is no convincing evidence for replacing use of bisphenol A by substitute chemicals, though environmental pressure groups continue to press for a ban on use of bisphenol A and its replacement.

In other words, according to the world’s top independent scientists, Rust and her team got the BPA science dead wrong. In retrospect, she appears to have been captured by ‘activist science.’

How did Rust respond to the pushback by scientists with no industry connections? Rather than reviewing the studies from Germany, EFSA and the FDA, or engaging with Sharpe and others, Rust, then at California Watch, dug in her heals. She glowingly cited herself, touting the Journal Sentinel for examining nearly 260 studies (as compared to the German group alone, which reviewed 5,000) and issued vague, damning—and incorrect—innuendos about alleged conflicts of interest among the independent scientists.

To Rust, science is a corporate conspiracy.

Exxon obsession

The irony is that these ideological themes have reappeared in Rust’s skewed reporting on the history of the Exxon Valdez incident. ExxonMobil should not be exculpated from what was one of the world’s most consequential and ecological disasters. But the central theme of the articles that she has overseen at Coll’s behest—that Exxon was the mastermind of a scheme to deceive the public about climate change—holds as much credibility as her simplistic attacks on BPA.

This was particularly apparent in an earlier series of articles in the Times, in fall 2015. Rust’s fellowship project accused the world’s largest oil company of downplaying the risks of climate change. InsideClimateNews, known for its doomsday environmentalism, posted a nearly identical article, tapping Columbia’s research. The stories painted a dark picture of the oil-industry behemoth, charging it with a cover-up that echoed the tobacco industry’s denial of health problems from cigarettes.

“Exxon,” the authors wrote, “made a strategic decision…to publicly emphasize doubt and uncertainty regarding climate change science even as its internal research embraced the growing scientific consensus.” The series claimed Exxon had known for years that climate change was real — but hid the science to keep revenues flowing.

Strangely, given the case for transparency that Columbia and the Times’ journalists uphold as the standard for ExxonMobil regarding climate science, the reporters and their journals that carried their articles have had to be embarrassed into disclosing the funding stream (and then only partially). It’s a “Who’s Who” of activist funders, some of which have also assiduously backed the Columbia Journalism School under Coll in previously targeting ExxonMobil: Energy Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Family Fund, Lorana Sullivan Foundation, Tellus Mater Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The names were kept hidden until intense public criticism, including from the Columbia Journalism Review.

I asked Susanne Rust if she would answer questions about these issues, but she would not respond.

Let’s be clear about the latest Times piece: Whatever one may believe about ExxonMobil’s culpability in the Valdez incident or its historical position on global warming, this article isn’t really about either of those two things. Its conclusion that the company’s alleged institutional science-denialism was the proximate cause of the incident is contradicted by its own reporting. Rather, it was designed to exploit ExxonMobil’s reputation as a climate-change villain and promote Columbia’s Journalism School - at the expense of quality, independent journalism.