Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Last week, the United States Supreme Court declared that the State of Minnesota’s lawsuit against several oil giants for deception on climate change would stay in state-level court. That’s the outcome that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison had sought, and it’s a victory for accountability in this potentially landmark case.
“Now, the case can move forward in state court, where it was properly filed, and we can begin to hold these companies accountable for their wrongful conduct,” Ellison said in a press release. The Attorney General first brought the case in 2020.
In a nutshell, this lawsuit, which targets the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and three companies affiliated with Koch Industries, is about fraud and greenwashing. Minnesota contends that these fossil fuel interests violated Minnesota law for decades via advertising that denied climate change despite the companies’ knowledge of the truth.
There’s plenty of evidence to support Minnesota’s case. The Attorney General’s office shared two documents when it first announced its lawsuit: one showing that ExxonMobil knew that its petroleum products were contributing to climate change as early as 1979, the other a collection of advertisements funded by the company and its allies that denied that the planet is warming.
Minnesota’s isn’t the only government launching this type of lawsuit. And their arguments have since gotten a boost from Congress. A 2022 investigation by the U.S. House Oversight Committee found that fossil companies including Shell, BP, and the two companies named in the Minnesota lawsuit have colluded to deceive the public into believing their actions will help fight climate change, when the opposite is the case.
One might hope that the fossil fuel industry would have faced an internal reckoning and actually start pursuing cleaner energy. But that hasn’t been the case. As we wrote last month, the fossil fuel industry sent 2,456 lobbyists to the COP28 conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates – and not to argue for cleaner energy, despite what they might have advertised. The chairman of that conference, the CEO of the UAE’s state oil company, drew controversy for saying that there is no science behind phasing out fossil fuels as part of climate action.
Minnesotans are no stranger to this type of greenwashing. During the debate over the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, the pipeline’s backers claimed that the pipeline was the “green” option, compared with transporting the oil by rail (it wasn’t, as the damages to Minnesota groundwater have shown.) Seldom mentioned by these backers was the fact that the oil Line 3 carries generates the greenhouse gas equivalent of 50 coal plants a year.
It’s clear that the fossil fuel industry isn’t likely to change their ways of their own volition. Lawsuits like Minnesotans are necessary and in the public interest. Attorney General Ellison’s goal is for the courts to require the defendants to pay damages to the public for their deception, provide funding for climate mitigation, and publicly support information campaigns to spread the truth about climate change.
We hope to see this lawsuit find success in state court. While these corporations have enormous resources at their disposal, they can’t hide the truth any longer, and Minnesota has the chance to hold them accountable for decades of deception and destruction.
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