By Karen Savage
Minnesota has filed a lawsuit against Exxon, three Koch Industries entities and the American Petroleum Institute, accusing them of consumer fraud and other violations for their decades-long deception about their role in climate change, state attorney general Keith Ellison announced on Wednesday.
The suit, filed in Minnesota District Court in Ramsey County, includes claims of fraud, failure to warn and alleges multiple violations of state laws involving consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices and false advertising.
Unlike the other major climate liability lawsuits, Minnesota’s takes the extra step of including the API, the most powerful oil and gas trade association in the country, as a named defendant. The state alleges that the API, along with Exxon and Koch Industries, have known about the risks of climate change for decades, but deliberately mislead the public about those risks in an effort to increase industry profits.
“When corporations and trade associations break the law and hurt Minnesotans, it’s my job and my duty to hold them accountable,” Ellison said. “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.”
Ellison is seeking damages for harm suffered by Minnesotans and is asking the court to order the defendants to fund a public education campaign highlighting the risk their products pose to the climate. The state is also asking Exxon, the API and Koch Industries to make all of their climate change-related research available to the public.
More than a dozen municipalities across the country have filed climate liability suits aiming to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change-related damages. Rhode Island became the first state to do so when it sued 21 oil and gas companies in 2018, a case that is proceeding in state court. The New York attorney general’s office used a strong investor fraud law to charge Exxon with fraud in 2018, but its lawsuit was unsuccessful. A suit filed by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office against Exxon for deceiving consumers is proceeding in state court.
Thus far, Exxon has been a defendant in all of the suits.
Exxon spokesman Casey Norton said Minnesota’s allegations are “baseless and without merit.”
“This lawsuit is part of a coordinated, politically motivated campaign against energy companies,” Norton said, adding that litigation wastes taxpayer money and does nothing to reduce the risks of climate change.
“ExxonMobil will continue to invest in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy,” Norton said, adding that a Texas court recently referred to similar litigation as “lawfare.”
Norton was referring to the recent ruling that Exxon cannot obtain discovery in Texas from officials for California municipalities that are suing Exxon for climate liability.
Minnesota’s suit, however, is very different from the California suits.
Minnesota is not seeking to hold the companies accountable for climate change itself, but does charge them with deceiving and defrauding the public about it. The state is also seeking an injunction to stop the defendants from engaging in further deception.
“Impacts from climate change hurt our low-income residents and communities of color first and worst,” Ellison said. “The impacts on farmers in our agricultural state are widespread as well.”
Climate change-related impacts—including rising temperatures, increases in extreme weather, including rainfall events —already threaten Minnesota’s economy.
Minnesota has experienced some of the largest annual temperature increases in the nation. In Minneapolis-Saint Paul, annual average temperatures increased by 3.2 degrees between 1951 and 2012, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Temperatures statewide increased between one and three degrees during that same period, leading to an increase in heat-related illnesses.
“It is our populations of color — particularly our urban African American population and our American Indian population whether urban or rural — that face the most grave health disparities, disparities contributed to by corporations that have knowingly deceived the public, distorted the science, and made tremendous profits while causing irreparable socio-environmental harm,” said Sam Grant, executive director of climate advocacy group MN350.
Along with an increase in extreme rainfall events and flooding, increased heat has damaged crops, particularly for corn farmers. Crop and home insurance rates have risen and infrastructure repairs have also become more urgent. As air conditioning use increases, communities near fossil fuel utilities are exposed to more pollutants.
“As Generation Z, we have known about climate change ever since we were born,” said Juwaria Jama, the 16-year-old lead organizer for Minnesota Youth Climate Strike. “We are spending our time fighting a last-minute battle to preserve a livable world for ourselves and future generations because corporations like Exxon knew the impacts of climate change, but continued to deceive the public for decades.”
Investigative reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times in 2015 revealed that Exxon knew about the harmful effects of climate change for decades, yet still funded climate denial campaigns and worked to cast doubt among the public on the imminent impacts of climate change.
Other reporting by InsideClimate News revealed that the API knew as early as 1982 that climate change “can have serious consequences for man’s comfort and survival.”
The API in 1998 circulated its Global Science Communications Plan, which included promoting uncertainty in climate science. “Victory will be achieved when average citizens understand uncertainties in climate science” and “media coverage reflects balance on climate science,” it read. At the time, there was widespread consensus among scientists that climate change was a global threat. The consensus has only grown stronger since then.
“The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” said Paul Afonso, chief legal officer and senior vice president for the API. “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”
Koch industries is well-known for funding climate denial and participated in the Global Climate Coalition, a fossil fuel industry-backed group that for decades worked to influence the process behind the United Nations climate assessments, using lobbyists and industry-funded scientists to manipulate international negotiations.
Exxon and Koch Industries have earned hundreds of billions of dollars in profits while leaving Minnesota to bear the cost of damage done to the climate by their products, according to the suit.
“Our future generations count on our actions today,” said Winona LaDuke, director of Honor the Earth. “As fossil-fuel companies like Exxon twist laws and deal in carbon across the world, people and governments are stopping them. I’m proud that Minnesota is stepping up.”