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Will Big Oil Pay a Price for its Lies?

A new D.C. lawsuit targets the world’s four largest oil companies (BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell) for misleading consumers about climate change.

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What Exxon knew about the Earth's melting Arctic, Los Angeles Times

On June 25, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine filed a consumer protection lawsuit against the world’s four largest oil companies: BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell. The lawsuit accuses the companies of “systematically and intentionally misleading District consumers about the role their products play in causing climate change.”

The district joins other states and cities in suing ExxonMobil for climate crimes. Just one day prior, on June 24, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced a consumer fraud lawsuit against Exxon, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute. Massachusetts and New York have sued ExxonMobil as well. The Minnesota and D.C. suits focus on corporate deception and consumer protection.

Kathleen Konopka, Deputy Attorney General for the Public Advocacy Division told The Progressive: “The District of Columbia sued Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron and Shell for systematically and intentionally misleading District consumers about the role their fossil fuel products play in causing climate change. The companies executed a decades-long public relations campaign to undermine climate science, misrepresent fossil fuel products as “clean,” and mislead consumers about the scale of their investments to reduce emissions. AG Racine’s lawsuit is focused on holding these companies accountable for deceiving District consumers.”

The D.C. lawsuit marks the first instance of an Attorney General naming Chevron, Shell, and BP for climate crimes. The four oil companies have all made headlines before. In 2019, a study conducted by The Guardian of the world’s worst carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters globally found that “Chevron topped the list of the eight investor-owned corporations, followed closely by Exxon, BP, and Shell.”

In September 2015, InsideClimate News began what would become a nine-part series, Exxon: The Road Not Taken, documenting that Exxon had known since the 1970s about the causes and impacts of climate change. Exxon’s own research confirmed the role of fossil fuels in global warming. Top executives at the company were warned of the effects of CO2 emissions and of climate change. They then initiated efforts to block solutions. 

In October 2015, the Columbia University’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project and the Los Angeles Times also examined the contrast between Exxon’s internal reports and external messaging about climate change between the 1980s and the early 2000s.

In response, as reported by The New York Times, New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched an investigation in November 2015 to determine if ExxonMobil had lied to the public about climate change and to its investors about the dangers of fossil fuels. 2016 Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders demanded an investigation. More than 350,000 people signed a petition delivered in November 2015 to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch calling on the Department of Justice to examine whether ExxonMobil intentionally misled the public, “putting profits over the planet.”

Thehe 101-page lawsuit filed by Racine’s office June 25 argues that “the defendants have known for decades that their fossil fuel products would disrupt the global climate with potentially ‘catastrophic’ consequences for humankind.” 

Furthermore, their “internal actions demonstrated awareness and acceptance of the known effects of climate change.” But “contrary to their clear knowledge of climate change . . . the defendants promoted disinformation and doubt among D.C. consumers and nationwide.”

The companies repeated a playbook used by the tobacco industry (which had denied tobacco’s harm), in order to create uncertainty about the actuality of climate change. In his remarks, Attorney General Racine said the companies “hired some of the same scientists who falsely disputed the connection between tobacco use and cancer to do the same for fossil fuels and climate change” and “hired a well-known fake grassroots group—the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition—used in the tobacco industry’s disinformation campaign to manufacture public opposition to climate researchers and activists.” 

The lawsuit specifically mentions “Exxon’s misleading advertising campaign of climate denial” and “Shell’s misleading ‘Profits and Principles’ advertising campaign.”

The suit also calls out the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying group that existed from 1989 to 2002. It opposed policies intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and instead advocated a public campaign of climate denial. The lawsuit charges that the “defendants formed the Global Climate Coalition to deceive customers by distorting climate science.” One member of the Global Climate Coalition was the American Petroleum Institute.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the largest trade organization representing the oil industry, consisting of more than 600 companies. The suit states the “defendants used API to deceive consumers as to the existence of climate change and whether fossil fuels had a role in causing it.” 

While he 101-page lawsuit filed by Racine’s office June 25 argues that “the defendants have known for decades that their fossil fuel products would disrupt the global climate with potentially ‘catastrophic’ consequences for humankind.” 

Furthermore, their “internal actions demonstrated awareness and acceptance of the known effects of climate change.” But “contrary to their clear knowledge of climate change . . . the defendants promoted disinformation and doubt among D.C. consumers and nationwide.”

The companies repeated a playbook used by the tobacco industry (which had denied tobacco’s harm), in order to create uncertainty about the actuality of climate change. In his remarks, Attorney General Racine said the companies “hired some of the same scientists who falsely disputed the connection between tobacco use and cancer to do the same for fossil fuels and climate change” and “hired a well-known fake grassroots group—the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition—used in the tobacco industry’s disinformation campaign to manufacture public opposition to climate researchers and activists.” 

The lawsuit specifically mentions “Exxon’s misleading advertising campaign of climate denial” and “Shell’s misleading ‘Profits and Principles’ advertising campaign.”

The suit also calls out the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying group that existed from 1989 to 2002. It opposed policies intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and instead advocated a public campaign of climate denial. The lawsuit charges that the “defendants formed the Global Climate Coalition to deceive customers by distorting climate science.” One member of the Global Climate Coalition was the American Petroleum Institute.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the largest trade organization representing the oil industry, consisting of more than 600 companies. The suit states the “defendants used API to deceive consumers as to the existence of climate change and whether fossil fuels had a role in causing it.” 

[Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic, who covers energy policy, climate negotiations, and related direct actions. Her work has been published at Climate Progress, Grist, The Nation, The Progressive, and the Washington Monthly.]

Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.