The oil and gas industry was hit with yet another lawsuit when Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced this week that his office is suing two of the nation’s largest oil companies, and the oil industry’s trade group, for a “30 year campaign of deception” about the impacts of climate change.
At a press conference in Saint Paul, Ellison stated that Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute “knowingly directed, conducted and funded a campaign to deceive and defraud Minnesotans and Americans” about the effects of fossil fuels on the environment. The state’s charges include fraud, failure to warn, and false statements in advertising.
Minnesota follows at least 15 progressive cities and states — from San Francisco to Rhode Island — that have filed suits against oil companies in the wake of a 2015 series by Inside Climate News, which uncovered internal Exxon documents that showed the company understood the science of climate change and the severity of its consequences more than 30 years ago, yet spent millions of dollars on a campaign to sow doubt in the science.
Using those documents, local governments have sued industry giants for fraud, and sought compensation for the damages of climate change in their communities. But the cases have yet to show results. The oil and gas industry has responded with a litany of countersuits and subpoenas that have tied up many of the cases for years. And when a case does make it in front of a judge, several have decided that it’s not an issue for the courts to decide. In Oakland, San Francisco, and New York City, judges insisted that while the impacts of climate change are real, it was a problem for legislators, not our judicial system, to address. “The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup in 2018.
The Minnesota lawsuit argues that over the past three decades, climate change and oil and gas development has had a quantifiable impact on the state — itemizing costs like the nearly $614 million spent on asthma treatment in 2014 and the $165 million on flood disaster relief in 2007 — and it seeks to recoup those losses, in part by forcing the defendants to relinquish hundreds of billions in profits they made through what the state is calling unlawful conduct. But it also demands that the companies undo the misinformation campaign that they’ve run for decades, by funding “a corrective public education campaign in Minnesota relating to the issue of climate change, administered and controlled by an independent third party.”
“Misleading the public about science isn’t a new concept,” said Doug Blanke, director of the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, who was part of the legal team that sued the tobacco industry in the 1990s, in which he won a more than $6 billion settlement for the state of Minnesota. There has yet to be the same kind of victory against the oil and gas industry, but the tobacco settlement seemed near impossible too — until it wasn’t.
The Exxon documents are damning. The complaint filed by Minnesota includes a 1979 document from Exxon Engineering that acknowledges that the CO2 in the atmosphere was increasing, and that according to “the most widely held theory,” that increase was caused by burning fossil fuels, and “the present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.”
But Exxon worked to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect.” And by 1991, the Information Council for the Environment, a front group created by the coal and electricity industries, had launched a misinformation campaign to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” The group released ads with taglines like “Who Told You The Earth Was Warming…Chicken Little?” and “Doomsday is cancelled. Again.”
“Our future generations count on our actions today,” said Winona LaDuke, a Native American land rights activist in Minnesota who’s been on the front lines in the battle against a new oil and gas pipeline in the state. There isn’t any oil in Minnesota, but it’s criss-crossed with pipelines, like those owned by Koch Industries, carrying oil from Canada to ports along the Great Lakes. “I’ve spent most of my life fighting dumb ideas,” said LaDuke. “I’m proud that Minnesota is stepping up.”
The oil and gas industry is in a uniquely imbalanced moment. As shelter-in-place orders drastically changed our energy consumption, a barrel of oil was valued at less than zero earlier this year, and companies are still struggling to break even. More broadly, renewables, while also hindered by the shutdown, continue to take over more of the energy market and the steady drumbeat of the divestment movement chips away at the fossil fuel industry’s financial backing. Now, Minnesota hopes to pile on a charge for the hundreds of billions of dollars that they say climate change has cost them. “Holding these companies accountable for the climate deception they’ve spread and continue to spread is essential to helping families to afford their lives and live with dignity and respect,” said Ellison. “When corporations and trade associations break the law and hurt Minnesotans, it’s my job and my duty to hold them accountable.”