Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit this morning in Ramsey County on behalf of the State and its residents to stop deceptive practices related to climate change and to hold ExxonMobil Corp., the American Petroleum Institute, and three Koch Industries entities accountable for perpetuating fraud against Minnesotans.
The lawsuit includes claims for fraud, failure to warn, and multiple separate violations of Minnesota Statutes that prohibit consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, and false statements in advertising. In addition to an injunction barring further violation of these laws,the complaint seeks restitution for the harms Minnesotans have suffered, and asks the Court to require defendants to fund a corrective public education campaign on the issue of climate change.
Minnesota joins a growing number of governments that are seeking to hold companies responsible for harms associated with climate change. While defendants and claims vary among jurisdictions, at least 15 other plaintiffs have brought similar lawsuits to date. Plaintiffs include the states of Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island, along with cities and counties throughout the country.
“When corporations and trade associations break the law and hurt Minnesotans, it’s my job and my duty to hold them accountable. The fraud, deceptive advertising, and other violations of Minnesota state law and common law that the lawsuit shows they perpetrated have harmed Minnesotans’ health and our state’s environment, infrastructure, and economy,” said Ellison.
“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. 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. It’s only fair that, as our complaint states, ‘the parties who have profited from avoiding the consequences and costs of dealing with global warming and its physical, environmental, social, and economic consequences, bear the costs of those impacts, rather than Minnesota taxpayers, residents, or broader segments of the public.’”
The complaint asks the court to require these companies to use wrongfully-obtained profits to help Minnesota pay for the devastating consequences of climate change. Ellison is asking for these companies to disgorge profits and to “fund a corrective public education campaign in Minnesota relating to the issue of climate change, administered and controlled by an independent third party,” and that defendants “disclose, disseminate, and publish all research previously conducted directly or indirectly . . . that relates to the issue of climate change.”
The complaint describes how these companies strategized to deceive the public about climate-change science in order to safeguard their business interests. It was uncovered only starting in 2015 that internal experts in the field of climate change at these companies were issuing warnings to company leaders about what was coming. But rather than warn the public, as was the companies’ duty, the complaint details a multi-pronged campaign of deception that the companies and API conducted over the past 30 years.
During this same period, ExxonMobil and Koch earned hundreds of billions of dollars in profits while Minnesota shouldered the costs and consequences of unmitigated climate change.
Two images released in the complaint today illustrate the campaign of deception. One is a document from Exxon Engineering, labeled “Proprietary Information,” dated October 19, 1979. It clearly asserts the reality of climate change and acknowledges that the cause is “due to fossil fuel consumption.” The other image is of print advertisements from the Information Council for the Environment, an industry front group dedicated to denying the science of climate change. The ads compare predictions of climate change to “Chicken Little” and assert that “they may not be true” — despite the defendants’ knowledge that the predictions were true.
Minnesota has a history of holding companies accountable for misleading the public. Under former Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey, Minnesota prosecuted Big Tobacco for violating many of these same statutes. Doug Blanke, who worked on the tobacco litigation and headed the Consumer Protection Division while he was at the Attorney General’s office, and now directs the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, thinks Ellison has a strong case. “Misleading the public about science is not a new concept,” he explained. “Unfortunately, some companies seem to care more about their bottom lines than the public’s health. But it’s a violation of Minnesota law to mislead consumers about the products you sell, and the Attorney General has laid out a powerful case that these companies did exactly that.”
Sam Grant, executive director of MN350, added, “As we come together to hold American Petroleum Institute, Exxon, and Koch Industries accountable in this consumer-protection lawsuit, it is important to be mindful that the harm caused by their bad corporate behavior is not evenly experienced. Here in Minnesota, it is our populations of color — particularly our urban African American population and our American Indian population whether urban or rural — that face the most grave health disparities, disparities contributed to by corporations that have knowingly deceived the public, distorted the science, and made tremendous profits while causing irreparable socio-environmental harm.”
“Our future generations count on our actions today,” said Winona LaDuke, director of Honor the Earth. “As fossil-fuel companies like Exxon twist laws and deal in carbon across the world, people and governments are stopping them. I’m proud that Minnesota is stepping up.”
Juwaria Jama, the state lead for Minnesota Youth Climate Strike, provided a point-of-view from young people: “As generation z, we have known about climate change ever since we were born. As children, we were told that we only had a few years to act until our future could be stolen from us. Now as teenagers, that reality is clearer. 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. Exxon chose profit over people. It’s time they’re held accountable.”