By Karen Savage
Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings has filed a lawsuit against Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute and several other fossil fuel companies to hold them accountable for climate change deception, damage and costs.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Delaware Superior Court, alleges the defendants knew for decades that their products cause climate change, but deliberately deceived the public about those harms.
Delaware joins a list of states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and a growing number of municipalities that have filed similar suits against fossil fuel companies. It is the third recent climate change-related lawsuit to name the API, the most powerful oil and gas trade association in the country, as a defendant.
The suit “isn’t about stopping climate change, it’s about Delaware surviving it,” Jennings said during an online press briefing.
“Exxon, Chevron, and other mega-corporations knew exactly what kind of sacrifices the world would make to support their profits, and they deceived the public for decades. Now we are staring down a crisis at our shores, and taxpayers are once again footing the bill for damage to our roads, our beaches, our environment, and our economy,” Jennings said.
“They knew about it, they hid it, they lied to the public, they are accountable and they should pay for damages in Delaware,” Jennings said, adding that climate change has already cost the state “astronomical sums” and is threatening to cost billions more.
With the lowest average elevation of any state, Delaware is uniquely vulnerable to climate change. More than 22,000 residents are currently at risk of coastal flooding. That number is expected to rise to 31,000 by 2050 and will likely grow even higher by the end of the century, when sea levels are expected to rise more than six feet.
Only Florida and Louisiana have greater proportions of land at risk of coastal flooding, according to research of the lower 48 states conducted by Climate Central.
The state is also experiencing an increase in extreme precipitation events and as a result, more than 29,000 additional residents are at risk of inland flooding.
Shawn Garvin, secretary of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said Delaware’s agricultural sector has been especially hard-hit by rising temperatures, drought and salt water intrusion.
“The science is clear that these climate impacts are directly attributable to the products produced by fossil fuel companies,” Galvin said. “The adaptations and resiliency we have to do should not be on the backs of Delawareans.”
In the complaint, Jennings asserts state law causes of action, including negligent failure to warn, trespass, public nuisance and multiple violations of Delaware’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA).
In addition to damages and attorneys’ fees from all the defendants, Jennings is seeking an additional $10,000 for each willful violation of the CFA by the API, BP, Chevron, Exxon, Hess, Shell Citgo, Marathon, and CNX Resources, who are referred to in the complaint as the CFA defendants.
The deception by the CFA defendants “was gross, oppressive, aggravated, exhibited a wanton or willful disregard for the rights of the state, and was committed with actual malice and involved the breach of the public’s trust and confidence,” Jennings wrote.
The AG alleges that the API and the companies knew their actions and their products were causing harm, but “acted with conscious disregard for the probable dangerous consequences” and were “motivated primarily by unreasonable financial gain.”
Jennings also accuses the CFA defendants of engaging in ongoing greenwashing campaigns that continue to this day.
“CFA defendants deceitfully represented themselves as leaders in renewable energy and made misleading claims that their businesses were substantially invested in lower carbon technologies and renewable energy sources,” the AG wrote.
“In reality, defendants’ investment in renewable energy sources is miniscule and their business models continue to center on developing, producing, and selling more of the very same fossil fuel products driving climate change.”
Chevron spokesperson Sean Comey said there is no merit to the claims and they are not a serious solution to global warming.
“These special-interest-promoted lawsuits designed to punish a few companies who lawfully deliver affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy undermine real efforts to address the complex policy issues presented by global climate change,” Comey said in a statement.
The other defendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although the damage is catastrophic and the defendants are some of the world’s largest corporations, Jennings said the suit is a traditional damages case.