Minnesota Attorney General Sues Exxon Over Climate Change

Jun 29, 2020
Originally published on June 29, 2020 8:14 pm

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is suing Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute over what he calls "a campaign of deception" about climate change that the companies "orchestrated and executed with disturbing success."

Ellison and his office say internal documents show the oil and gas companies knew the damage that fossil fuels would cause as far back as the 1970s and '80s, yet hid that science and instead launched public relations campaigns denying climate change.

"They directly contradicted what their research found," Ellison tells NPR. "We can prove that and we will."

The lawsuit claims that the oil and gas companies violated Minnesota laws against consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices and false statements in advertising. Ellison said last week that the state is seeking "substantial" damages and for the companies to fund a public education campaign about climate change.

Exxon Mobil responded, calling the lawsuit part of an "ongoing coordinated, politically motivated campaign against energy companies."

"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," the company added, calling the claims "baseless and without merit."

Other states and cities have sued Exxon Mobil and other oil companies over climate change. Most recently, Exxon Mobil won a suit last year brought by New York's attorney general accusing the company of misleading investors.

Ellison talked with NPR's All Things Considered about the case.


Interview Highlights

On his supporting evidence

We have documents, such as one stamped "proprietary information" from Exxon Engineering, which says, "the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased" and "the rate of CO2 release from anthropogenic sources appears to be doubling every 15 years. The most widely held theory is that the increase is due to fossil fuel combustion."

That document was from Oct. 16, 1979. So they knew in '79 and then they lied about it. They actually, they produced propaganda, which essentially said things like: "Who told you the Earth was warming? Chicken Little?" And then other ones: "The most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is that it may not be true." They directly contradicted what their research found. We can prove that and we will.

On why the lawsuit begins by saying global warming will "disproportionately impact people living in poverty and people of color"

Well, because it's true, which is always important, to make sure that we tell the story about what's really going on here. So many civil rights groups that work on issues of racial and economic justice don't always factor in the environmental realities that people of color and low-income people face. I mean, the fact is, is that environmental justice and environmental harms that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income people is a civil rights issue and it should be treated as that. We've got to make sure that as people are working on criminal justice and things like that, that they factor in environmental justice, as urgent as it is.

On examples of how climate change is already impacting Minnesotans

If you're a farmer, you probably have seen much wetter fields than you've ever seen. Those wetter fields delay your growing season. You've seen infestation and pests that are impacting. There are a range of things that Minnesotans are seeing every day. We saw many of them join with us just last week.

One person who was with us was an environmentalist who is from the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe. And she was talking about how wild rice production has been dramatically impacted, which is a, she called it a sacred food of the Ojibwe people, and how that just climate change has so dramatically affected how they can harvest their crop.

NPR's Noah Caldwell and Dave Blanchard produced and edited the audio version of this interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A growing number of states and cities are asking courts to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the costs of climate change. Minnesota is the latest state to file a lawsuit like this. The state's attorney general Keith Ellison claims that Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute and Coke Industries strategized to deceive the public about carbon emissions. And Attorney General Ellison joins us now.

Welcome.

KEITH ELLISON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: What evidence do you have that these organizations intentionally deceived the public?

ELLISON: Well, you know, we have documents, such as one stamped proprietary information from Exxon engineering which says the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased and the rate of CO2 release from anthropogenic sources appears to be doubling every 15 years. The most widely held theory is that the increase is due to fossil fuel combustion.

SHAPIRO: And that document was from when?

ELLISON: That document was from October 16, 1979.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ELLISON: I mean, that's - so they knew in '79, and then they lied about it. They - actually, they produced propaganda which essentially said things like, who told you the earth was warming - Chicken Little? And then other ones - the most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is that it may not be true. They directly contradicted what their research found. We can prove that, and we will.

SHAPIRO: You know, today there's a lot of good information about the causes of climate change and the consequences that it will have. And yet Americans still commute by car and take cross-country flights. So tell me how you can argue that anyone's behavior would have changed if Americans had known more earlier.

ELLISON: Oh, there's a lot of technologies that we could have engaged in, a lot of different sorts of things including moving toward renewable energy sources, including rapid transit that might be less carbon-emitting. There are a lot of things that people are doing right now to reduce the carbon footprint. I mean, we've seen dramatic increase in solar and wind usage in the last few years. I mean, the world is adjusting. I mean, what if we would have just had 10 or 20 years to make that adjustment rather than the limited amount of time that we have now?

SHAPIRO: Now, in the first paragraph of this lawsuit, you mentioned that climate change will disproportionately impact people living in poverty and people of color. Other climate change lawsuits have not put this issue front and center. Why did you want to put equity in the foreground of your case?

ELLISON: Well, because it's true, which is always important - you know, to make sure that we tell the story about what's really going on here. So many civil rights groups that work on issues of racial and economic justice don't always factor in the environmental realities that people of color and low-income people face. I mean, the fact is that environmental justice and environmental harms that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income people is a civil rights issue, and it should be treated as that. We've got to make sure that as people are working on criminal justice and things like that that they factor in environmental justice, as urgent as it is.

SHAPIRO: Give us an example or two of how climate change has already affected the lives of Minnesotans.

ELLISON: Well, I mean, if you're a farmer, you probably have seen much wetter fields than you've ever seen. Those wetter fields delayed your growing season. We've seen - you've seen infestation and pests that are impacting. There are a range of things that Minnesotans are seeing every day. We saw many of them just last week. One person who was with us was an environmentalist who is from the White Earth nation of Ojibwe. And she was talking about how wild rice production has been dramatically impacted, which is a - she called it a sacred food of the Ojibwe people and how just climate change has dramatically effected how they can harvest that crop.

SHAPIRO: We reached out to the defendants for comment, and Exxon Mobil responded, calling the lawsuit a politically motivated campaign against energy companies, saying that it wastes taxpayer money. How do you respond to that?

ELLISON: Well, if anybody's wasting money, it's them. You know, they need to come in, come to the table and talk with us about how they're going to mitigate the harm that they have caused, you know? They need to disgorge their profits. They need to start telling the truth about the deception that they have put forward. They need to help us get on the path to renewable green energy. That's what they need to do. But of course, you know, they've lied from the start. They're still lying. So that's just the way they do business.

SHAPIRO: You know, there have been a lot of other cases like yours, and so far, none have been successful. New York's attorney general lost a case against Exxon Mobil. Others are taking a long time to resolve. What makes you think this one will be successful where others so far have not been?

ELLISON: We have great confidence in Minnesota's consumer laws. I mean, this lawsuit claims fraud, failure to warn, multiple and separate violations of consumer fraud statutes, deceptive trade practices. We can show that they have done it. Now, I'll never underestimate their ability to obfuscate and trick and avoid, but we're even more confident in our ability to put on a strong, powerful case that will require that they have to be held accountable.

SHAPIRO: So imagine for a moment that you do win this case. What do you want the impact or consequences to be?

ELLISON: What we want is to disgorge their profits. We want - we're seeking out remedial and injunctive relief and restitution, and we believe there needs to be a corrective public education campaign. They need to stop lying, start telling the truth. They need to teach people that what they had been saying wasn't true, that there - you know, that there is - that, one, there is climate change; two, it's caused by fossil fuels, and its effects are catastrophic. And then we believe that the money that they have received based on their deception is ill-gotten gains. They should not be allowed to retain it.

SHAPIRO: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, thank you for speaking with us.

ELLISON: Thank you.

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