ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota has joined a growing group of states suing oil industry titans for deceiving the public about their contributions to climate change in sweeping fraud cases.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced Wednesday he filed a complaint in state court accusing ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Flint Hills Resources and the American Petroleum Institute of consumer fraud, failure to warn, deceptive trade practices, fraud and false advertising.
The companies had deliberately concealed the fact that growing fossil-fuel use was contributing to climate change despite knowing about it at least as early as the 1980s, according to a 2017 study.
That deception, the complaint said, has already impacted Minnesota through drought, flooding and crop failures attributed to climate change, even as the companies launched lobbying and public relations campaigns denying its “potentially catastrophic consequences,” including one suggesting that higher levels of CO2 could be the solution for world hunger.
“Impacts from climate change hurt our low-income residents and communities of color first and worst. The impacts on farmers in our agricultural state are widespread as well,” Ellison said in a statement. “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.”
The complaint asked that the companies be required to disgorge their profits and fund a public education campaign on climate change – this one administered by an independent third party. It also sought damages that could reach $25,000 per violation of state law.
It detailed a variety of internal documents discussing what it called a “campaign of deception and half-truths,” involving a variety of organizations formed or funded by the companies to minimize the dangers climate change posed.
Those included a 1991 effort to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact),” an API vice president’s 1997 assertion that “climate scientists don’t say that burning oil, gas and coal is steadily warming the earth,” and public statements as late as 2018 saying that “current scientific understanding provides limited guidance on the likelihood, magnitude or time frame of these events,” despite the company’s own predictions that climate change would have catastrophic effects by 2050.
ExxonMobil spokesman Casey Norton called the litigation “baseless and without merit” in an email.
“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,” he wrote. “A Texas court recently referred [to] this type of litigation as ‘Lawfare’ – an ugly tool that abuses the legal system to seek environmental policy change.”
Norton made a similar statement in the aftermath of a New York securities suit.
Ellison’s lawsuit is the latest in a steady stream of litigation by states and municipalities attempting to hold fossil-fuel companies and lobbyists liable for climate change. The states of New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have all sued oil giants for fraud, though not on the same charges as Ellison’s suit. The New York case was dismissed, but the state is awaiting a ruling on its appeal to the Second Circuit.
Lawsuits by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland demanding that fossil fuel companies cover the costs of seawalls and other projects mitigating climate change’s effects were recently resurrected by the Ninth Circuit after being dismissed by a federal judge in 2018.
A securities fraud case against ExxonMobil in New York was also dismissed in 2019 when a judge found that while ExxonMobil was not absolved of liability for climate change, its actions didn’t constitute securities fraud.
Ellison’s case was filed in Ramsey County District Court in the state capital of St. Paul.
Temperatures in St. Paul and its twin city of Minneapolis have risen by 3.2 degrees in the last six decades, the complaint said, putting it ahead of national and global rates of increase. The state’s notoriously frigid winter temperatures, Ellison added, have been warming at a rate 13 times faster than its summers.
The state had just short of 60 deaths attributed to heat exposure between 2000 and 2017, and its staple crop of corn can be damaged irreparably if temperatures rise above 95 degrees.
“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,” student climate activist Juwaria Jama said in Ellison’s statement. “Exxon chose profit over people. It’s time they’re held accountable.”