Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison sued ExxonMobil Corp., Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute, claiming they deceived consumers for decades about the causes and consequences of supposed human-caused climate change.
Ellison’s lawsuit, filed June 24 in Ramsey County District Court, argues the defendants have violated multiple Minnesota consumer protection laws dealing with deceptive trade practices, false advertising, and fraud.
The lawsuit demands the defendant companies compensate Minnesotans for the harm Ellison alleges they have suffered from the climate deception, and that the companies be forced to fund a public education campaign presenting the state’s view of climate change.
Ellison suggested the total payout for the requested restitution and educational campaign could be similar to the $7 billion payout the tobacco industry agreed to in 1998.
“The defendants deceived, lied, and misrepresented the effects of their product to the public,” Ellison said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. “For 30 years, [they] made misleading statements about climate change.”
Ellison says the companies being sued also mislead consumers through their contributions to think tanks whose research has raised questions concerning the claim human energy use is causing a climate crisis.
The lawsuit alleges, for instance, “Koch-controlled foundations gave more than $127 million to groups that obfuscated climate science,” between 1997 and 2017.
Similar Lawsuits Rejected
Ellison’s lawsuit is one of a number of lawsuits aimed at energy companies for climate-change effects. At least 15 other states, including Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, and cities such as Oakland and San Francisco, have filed similar lawsuits. In the cases having held hearings so far, the courts have tossed the lawsuits as being unfounded as a matter of law and questionable as a matter of policy.
New York state Supreme Court Justice Barry Ostrager dismissed a lawsuit brought by state Attorney General Letitia James against ExxonMobil in December 2019. James’ office argued Exxon defrauded investors of $1.6 billion by failing to disclose what it knew about the costs of climate change, thus lying to investors about the company’s business prospects in light of the possible costs of government regulations to fight climate change.
“The office of the Attorney General failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that ExxonMobil made any material misstatements or omissions about its practices and procedures that misled any reasonable investor,” Ostrager wrote in his decision. “The office of the Attorney General produced no testimony from any investor who claimed to have been misled by any disclosure.”
Ostrager dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it cannot be brought again based on these facts in the state of New York.
California Lawsuits Tossed
The results were similar in a lawsuit filed by Oakland and San Francisco. In that case, Judge William Alsup of the federal district court in the Northern District of California dismissed a suit brought by the two cities against five oil companies in which the governments argued the companies should be held liable for harms allegedly caused by climate change.
Alsup ruled Congress and the president were best suited, as opposed to cities, states, or the judiciary, to determine what, if anything, to do about carbon dioxide emissions from the use of fossil fuels.
“[P]laintiffs’ claims require a balancing of policy concerns. … Importantly, ‘[t]he political branches, not the Judiciary, have the responsibility and institutional capacity to weigh foreign-policy concerns,’” wrote Alsup.
Going further, Alsup stated the potential harms of fossil fuel emissions must be weighed against the tremendous benefits they deliver.
“We must weigh this positive: our industrial revolution and the development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal,” Alsup said. “Without those fuels, virtually all of our monumental progress would have been impossible. Having reaped the benefit of that historic progress, would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?”
‘Politically Motivated Campaign’
ExxonMobil called Minnesota’s lawsuit a “politically motivated campaign” against energy companies, which will do nothing to prevent climate change.
“Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” said Exxon in a statement.
Ellison is using his office to target any company, group, or individual who disagrees with his point of view, says Isaac Orr, a policy fellow with the Minnesota-based Center of the American Experiment, one of the organizations named in the lawsuit as receiving money supposedly to confuse the public about the threat posed by purported human-caused climate change.
“During his time in office, Keith Ellison has politicized the office in a way that is a stark contrast to his predecessors, seeking to punish anyone who doesn’t agree with his worldview,” Orr said. “Mr. Ellison sought to fine a local bar owner $25,000 per day if he defied the governor’s order to stay closed, yet when Minneapolis was being burned and looted, Mr. Ellison had no such urge to enforce the rules.
“Now he’s attempting to punish energy companies for furnishing products that literally everyone relies upon,” Orr said. “The most likely outcome of this show trial will be a loss for Ellison’s office and hefty waste of taxpayer funds.
“Considering the state’s looming budget deficit due to the COVID shutdown and the $500 million damage to businesses in Minneapolis during the riots, Mr. Ellison should be more responsible with public dollars,” Orr said.
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.