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Jun 30, 2020

Minnesota Attorney General Sues Big Oil

Minnesota takes on Big Oil

June 30th, 2020
Sr. Staff Attorney Joy Anderson, MCEA St. Paul Office

The Minnesota Attorney General is taking on Big Oil with a lawsuit that seeks to hold oil companies responsible for their role in deceiving Minnesotans about climate change.

On June 24, 2020, Attorney General Keith Ellison announced that he is suing ExxonMobil Corp., Koch Industries, the American Petroleum Institute, and two Minnesota oil refineries. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants knew of the dangers of climate change as early as the 1960s, but hid that information from the public, effectively convincing Minnesotans to purchase more oil and gasoline. MCEA alum Leigh Currie, who is currently a special assistant attorney general, is one of the lead attorneys on the lawsuit.

What did the oil companies know?
The complaint details numerous documents that demonstrate that the defendants—and in particular, the American Petroleum Institute (“API”) and ExxonMobil Corp. (“Exxon”)—knew about the dangers of climate change as far back as the 1950s and 1960s. As just a few examples: 

  • In 1965, the API president discussed a climate change report at the Institute’s annual meeting, saying, “The substance of the report is that there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out.”
  • In 1979, an Exxon internal document explains that “the most widely held theory” is that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is due to fossil fuel combustion, which will cause a warming of the earth’s surface and “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.”
  • In 1980, API and Exxon attended a task force at which an expert explained the scientific consensus on climate change from burning fossil fuels, which could lead to “globally catastrophic effects” by the middle of the following century.

Despite having this information, the complaint alleges, the defendants misrepresented their knowledge about climate change to Minnesotans and other consumers.  

Since those early discoveries, as the complaint explains, API, Exxon, Koch Industries, and the other defendants have again and again asserted that there was not a scientific consensus about climate change or its causes, calling climate change “unproven” or “unlikely.” They spent millions of dollars on advertising and public relations—including in Minnesota—to convince the public that climate change was not an issue. And they funneled hundreds of millions more to organizations that denied or undermined climate change through research, lobbying, and public relations.

The lawsuit brings claims for consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, and false advertising based on Minnesota’s powerful consumer protection statutes. These laws are intended to provide broad protections for the public, and they give the Attorney General robust tools for stopping deceptive behavior and obtaining money damages and civil penalties.

What does the lawsuit ask for?
The complaint demands that the defendants stop making stop making deceptive statements about climate change, disclose all climate change related research, and fund a corrective public education campaign for Minnesotans about the true effects of climate change. It also demands extensive payments from defendants, including penalties for each deceptive statement made to consumers, damages for the climate change effects already occurring in the state, and repayment of all profits earned by defendants because of their deceptive statements.

And, the lawsuit gives the Attorney General the power to demand broad disclosures of now-secret documents about what the defendants knew about climate change.

Notably, the lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount of damages, but Ellison has stated in the media that damages could be in the same range as Minnesota’s $7 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998.

How does the lawsuit compare to other climate change lawsuits?
More than a dozen states and local governments have brought lawsuits against oil and gas companies over climate change in recent years. Most sought to hold the oil companies directly responsible for the impacts of climate change, but courts have been mostly unfriendly to these claims, concluding they are barred by federal law or that climate change should be addressed by legislation, not the courts. 

Minnesota’s lawsuit is different, however, because it is not focused on proving oil companies caused climate change, but rather on proving that the defendants made false statements to customers. This makes it more similar to a case filed in Massachusetts in 2019 and a case filed by the District of Columbia just days after the Minnesota lawsuit. And Minnesota’s consumer protection laws are strong.

What’s next?
Oil companies have fought long and hard to prevent lawsuits from moving forward and to prevent the release of important documents related to climate change. The Minnesota Attorney General has made it clear that his office is ready for a long, hard fight to ensure transparency for Minnesotans, and to hold these Big Oil defendants accountable for the damage they have done to Minnesota’s people and environment through their deceptive acts.   

For more information about the lawsuit, join me at a webinar from MCEA, the Center for Climate Integrity, MN350, and Fresh Energy on Wednesday, July 1 from 12:00-12:45 p.m. Did you miss the webinar? Click here to watch a recording.