Yves here. It is over my pay grade to assess the legal merits of Keith Ellison’s climate lawsuit. Having said that, my layperson’s understanding is that advertising fraud is a well-settled area of law, and advertisers are liable for false claims. So I would anticipate that this suit ought to survive a motion to dismiss and be able to get to the discovery phase, which alone would be plenty damaging to these companies. So the open questions would be how to establish and set damages for false statements with broad societal impact (which makes it more challenging to tie to clearly quantifiable economic damage) and if the companies can drag the suit out long enough to outlast Ellison, on the hope his successor won’t be as committed to a big complicated suit he didn’t launch.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit Wednesday against ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute for mounting a 30-year “campaign of deception” related to the climate crisis.
“There are no more worthy targets of a climate fraud lawsuit than Exxon, Koch Industries, and API: the unholy trinity of climate denial,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, in a statement.
The lawsuit, based on the state’s consumer protection laws, targets the companies “for deliberately undermining the science of climate change, purposefully downplaying the role that the purchase and consumption of their products played in causing climate change and the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change, and for failing to fully inform the consumers and the public of their understanding that without swift action, it would be too late to ward off the devastation”—actions they took while reaping billions in profits.
According to Ellison, “The fraud, deceptive advertising, and other violations of Minnesota state law and common law that the lawsuit shows they perpetrated have harmed Minnesotans’ health and our state’s environment, infrastructure, and economy.”
To “remedy the great harm and injury” Minnesotans have suffered as a result of the companies’ actions, the lawsuit is asking for the companies to disclose all their climate-related documents; “fund a corrective public education campaign in Minnesota relating to the issue of climate change, administered and controlled by an independent third party”; pay restitution to the state for harms incurred; and for the companies to “disgorge all profits made as a result of their unlawful conduct.”
The consequences of the climate crisis, the attorney general said, have not been felt equally.
“Impacts from climate change hurt our low-income residents and communities of color first and worst,” said Ellison. “The impacts on farmers in our agricultural state are widespread as well.”
“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. It’s only fair that, as our complaint states, ‘the parties who have profited from avoiding the consequences and costs of dealing with global warming and its physical, environmental, social, and economic consequences, bear the costs of those impacts, rather than Minnesota taxpayers, residents, or broader segments of the public.'”
Environmental advocacy groups praised the filing.
MN350 executive director Sam Grant, who was at Ellison’s news conference announcing the lawsuit, called the legal action “a long overdue step toward forcing these industries to pay for the damage they’ve done by misleading the world. Reckoning with the crimes of this industry is also the start of building the clean energy infrastructure and more humane society we’ll need to mitigate the disaster they’ve made.”
“This is the start of a better Minnesota and a planet where everyone—no matter their skin color, zip code, or income—can thrive,” said Grant.
Marco Simons, general counsel for EarthRights International, said, “Communities in Minnesota and elsewhere are paying the price for Exxon’s deception. In state after state, we see the same story unfold: Climate change driven by reckless fossil fuel development is costing communities millions of dollars a year as they are forced to repair essential infrastructure systems damaged by floods and other signs of climate change.” The global crisis is also blamed for “significant public health damage, through heat waves, increased air pollution, and insect-borne diseases,” he said.
Earthrights is also leading legal action against Exxon in Colorado, which Simons referenced in his statement.
“It is unconscionable that communities in Minnesota, Colorado, and around the world should be forced to pay for the destruction brought on by the rampant extraction and burning of fossil fuels. We stand in solidarity with the people of Minnesota and applaud this latest lawsuit against Exxon and its cronies,” said Simons.
There’s ample evidence of fossil fuel companies’ harms, said Rachel Licker, a Midwest-based senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The science linking the burning of fossil fuels to climate change is as settled as the link between smoking and cancer,” she said. “Even ExxonMobil’s own scientists warned their managers more than 40 years ago of ‘potentially catastrophic events’ as a result of continued fossil fuel production and use. A physicist shared similar concerns at an API-organized 100th anniversary party for the U.S. oil industry as far back as 1959. But rather than alerting the public or taking action, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, API, and its peers funded decades-long disinformation campaigns designed to cast doubt on the science and delay climate action.”
As the Center for Climate Integrity’s Wiles noted, Ellison’s lawsuit won’t mark the first time the state has stepped up for justice.
“Minnesota led the nationwide fight against Big Tobacco, and now, by taking on Big Oil for lying about climate change, the state is once again on the right side of history,” said Wiles, adding that the oil industry is facing similar suits from other government entities, including the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Minnesota’s, however, is the first climate deception suit to target Koch Industries’ role.
“With more than a dozen pending climate change lawsuits, the walls are closing in on the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “Big Oil knew, Big Oil lied, and in the end Big Oil will have to pay.”