As descendants of the oil baron John D. Rockefeller, some members of the Rockefeller family have felt obliged to lend their voices to a campaign by environmental activists to force the oil and gas industry to reduce pollutants that most people agree contribute to climate change.
But along the way, their crusade to reduce carbon emissions took a wrong turn, embroiling Rockefeller family members in what has become a highly polarized political fight that is creating a backlash against their cause and potentially undermining an industry that is vital to the economy and key to finding a solution to climate change.
ExxonMobil's (XOM) - Get Report recent annual shareholder meeting was a vivid demonstration of this. It marked the first time that a large faction of the Rockefeller family abandoned its seat at the shareholder table since the company began as John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil more than a century ago.
The message was clear. Disgruntled family members have decided that engagement with the company -- chiefly, trying to shape its corporate agenda from the inside -- was less preferable to another path that they have chosen that has grabbed headlines recently.
That is the path of confrontation. It is a tried-and-true practice in American activism, to be sure, and one that has extraordinary value, particularly when confronting systems of oppression, such as legal segregation in the South.
But in this case, the attacks on ExxonMobil are based on a conspiracy theory that was once strictly promoted within activist circles but that is now part of the mainstream discussion in large part because of the millions of dollars that the Rockefellers have donated through family foundations to grassroots groups, news outlets and other organizations actively driving the narrative against the company.
The theory goes like this: Decades ago, ExxonMobil scientists discovered that carbon emissions from fossil fuels caused climate change but sought to conceal that information in an elaborate hoax that it perpetrated on the American public and the scientific community.
ExxonMobil has been open about the climate research that it has conducted over the past 30 years, making hundreds of climate-related reports publicly available, including more than 50 peer-reviewed publications. And more than that, the notion that one company determined the entire scientific community's understanding about climate science is absurd.
But what is troubling is that the campaign by climate activists and wealthy philanthropists such as the Rockefellers appears to have crossed a line that goes beyond mere activism.
Recent news reports, for example, uncovered a meeting in January that was held behind closed doors at the New York offices of Rockefeller Family Fund, where the discussions appear to have centered on a controversial plan to undermine ExxonMobil, according to an agenda of the meeting that has been widely published.
That meeting involved ardent activists within the environmental movement, as well as others who appear bent on targeting the company for attack. These included Sharon Eubanks, a former Justice Department lawyer involved in prosecuting Big Tobacco; Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org; and Matt Pawa, a lawyer who has battled with ExxonMobil.
And the meeting agenda, according to news reports, detailed a campaign whose tactics included convincing the public that ExxonMobil is a "corrupt institution" that puts "humanity (and all creation)" at risk; forcing elected officials to "disassociate themselves from Exxon"; and "creating scandal" around the company.
Regrettably, these groups have found a few politicians willing to indulge their theories.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened a controversial investigation months ago using an obscure law known as the Martin Act, claiming that ExxonMobil misled shareholders by misrepresenting the risks of climate change. And then the Virgin Islands attorney general filed a case against the company under racketeering statutes intended for organized crime figures.
But there has been a backlash.
The conduct of the New York Attorney General's office has been questioned after a top official tried to thwart media inquiries about a secret meeting in March between attorneys general and influential environmental activists pushing for an investigation of ExxonMobil.
Free-speech advocates have decried the chilling effect of the Virgin Islands attorney general's demand for documents from think tanks and other groups over research or advocacy that the groups had done on climate policy.
And an email surfaced indicating that a top Obama administration official challenged the idea of bringing a racketeering case against fossil fuel companies.
In short, this has all been a mess, culminating in a House science committee opening an inquiry into whether Democratic state attorney generals are acting on behalf of environmental activists and groups, including the Rockefellers, are out to discredit ExxonMobil.
But it can end.
Climate activists and philanthropists must realize that destroying ExxonMobil not only destroys a pillar of the economy that kept the country strong during the recession and also provides solid and consistent returns to pension funds for millions of retirees. They must remember that the company agrees that certain aspects of the relationship between climate change and fossil fuels are a problem, and it is, in fact, working to develop technologies and alternative-energy solutions.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.