Two new climate lawsuits give Big Oil the tobacco treatment

In 2015, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman
launched an investigation
into what exactly ExxonMobil knew
about climate change decades earlier and whether it covered up its
findings. The following year, Virgin Islands attorney general
Claude Walker
issued a subpoena
to Exxon as part of an investigation into
whether the company had violated racketeering laws by
misrepresenting its knowledge of climate science. Massachusetts
attorney general Maura Healey
launched her own probe
into the company’s dealings shortly
after. The investigations paved the way for a
flood of lawsuits
from
cities
,
states
, and
other entities and groups
against many of the world’s largest
oil companies.

These legal actions have made a range of specific allegations,
from
consumer fraud
to
civil conspiracy
, but the fundamental claim underpinning all of
them is that Big Oil knew about the dangers posed by climate change
and lied about them in order to keep digging up, refining, and
selling its product.

ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and other major
oil companies have put up a fierce, and largely successful, fight
in court over to avoid getting pinned for their role in the climate
crisis. As oil companies racked up
win
after win for in 2018
and 2019,
it seemed like the climate lawsuit was doomed. Most
recently, a judge
ruled in favor of Exxon
in the New York case, which alleged
investor fraud, in December.

But two new lawsuits from Minnesota and Washington, D.C., hint
that climate lawsuits against Big Oil might be mounting a
comeback.

The new lawsuits mirror
Massachusetts’ ongoing lawsuit
against Exxon, which alleges
that the oil giant violated the state’s consumer and investor
protection law. In Minnesota on Wednesday, state attorney general
Keith Ellison
announced a lawsuit
against ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and
the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association, that alleges
that these entities have deceived consumers about the negative
impacts of fossil fuel consumption and climate change. At the press
conference announcing the suit, Ellison held up an internal
ExxonMobil engineering document from 1979 that acknowledged that
the company knew that climate change was caused by fossil fuel
combustion. “They knew CO2 was going to go up because of burning
fossil fuels, they knew it would cause climate change, and they
knew that there would be negative catastrophic effects to the world
and to Minnesota,” Ellison said.

The case bears similarity to a past case brought by Minnesota
against tobacco companies: In 1998,
Minnesota settled a lawsuit against the tobacco industry
under
similar allegations of consumer fraud, resulting in the creation of
a $6.5 billion fund that has been used for
public health programs and anti-smoking campaigns
. Doug Blanke,
director of the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School
of Law, oversaw the consumer protection division of the Minnesota
attorney general’s office at the time of the ‘98 suit. “The
lies of the tobacco industry … echo through every page of
today’s lawsuit, because the alleged actions of these defendants
are ripped straight from the playbook of the tobacco industry,”
Blanke said at the press conference announcing the lawsuit.

The press conference announcing the Minnesota lawsuit emphasized
the disproportionate effects of climate change on Black and
Indigenous communities. Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabekwe activist
and the director of the Native environmental nonprofit Honor the
Earth, emphasized the impacts of climate change on Indigenous
communities. “This last year was a very hard year on a lot of our
rice all across the north country,” LaDuke said. “They’re
expecting a 25 percent increase in these heavy rain events over the
next years. That’s going to be disastrous to our rice. Our rice
is who we are, that’s who we are as people.”

The
D.C. lawsuit
, which was announced by D.C. Attorney General Karl
Racine on Thursday, alleges that BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell
knowingly misled District consumers about the role their products
play in exacerbating climate change for the past five decades.
“Defendants continue to mislead D.C. consumers to this day,”
says the complaint, which was filed in D.C. Superior Court. Racine
brought the suit against four of the world’s largest oil
companies under the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures
Act, a statute that bans businesses from engaging in deceptive
trade practices and misleading consumers. “These companies were
not simply irresponsible in their reckless pursuit of profit,”
Racine said on a press call on Thursday. “Their deceptive
advertisement and misleading claims violate the D.C. consumer
protection law.”

Deputy attorney general Kathleen Konopka said Racine’s office
wasn’t aware of the Minnesota lawsuit until it was filed on
Wednesday. But she noted that D.C.’s lawsuit echoes some of the
environmental injustice claims brought by the Minnesota suit.
“There are indications that certain vulnerable populations will
be more susceptible to rising temperatures and climate change,”
she said on the call, “particularly in low-income communities and
particularly our seniors.”

If successful, the D.C. lawsuit would prohibit the four oil
companies from engaging in what Racine’s office considers
deceptive advertising campaigns. The companies would also have to
pay civil penalties and provide financial relief to consumers in
D.C.

William Boyd, a law professor at the University of California,
Los Angeles, says the two new lawsuits might get more traction than
past attempts. “These are broad consumer protection statutes, and
the facts that are alleged in the complaints are pretty damning for
the big oil companies in the sense that they show a systematic
effort to suppress and divert climate science and to mislead the
public about the impacts of climate change,” said Boyd. Oil
companies did “essentially what the tobacco companies did in
funding and supporting a whole campaign through a whole network of
organizations to essentially mislead the public,” Boyd said.

In
statements to the Washington Post
and
Reuters
, an ExxonMobil spokesperson dismissed both the
Minnesota and the D.C. lawsuit, saying that the suits are part of a
“coordinated, politically motivated campaign against energy
companies.”

Boyd thinks more lawsuits could be in store for Big Oil. “I
suspect many other states could be or are already thinking about
similar actions,” Boyd said. “I think the overarching
litigation strategy here is to find a legal theory that gets
traction, and then others can jump on board.”

If the attorneys general succeed, the cost for the oil companies
could be high. Ellison said that the settlement could be in the
range of the state’s 1998 $6.5 billion settlement with the
tobacco industry. “If you put it all together you’re looking at
claims that could move into the many billions of dollars fairly
quickly,” said Boyd. It’s unclear whether these lawsuits will
actually achieve their intended goal. But one thing is obvious:
cities and states aren’t giving up pinning the blame for climate
fallout on major oil companies just yet.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
Two new climate lawsuits give Big Oil the tobacco treatment
on
Jun 29, 2020.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
Two new climate lawsuits give Big Oil the tobacco
treatment