Connecticut Becomes the Fifth State to Sue Big Oil Over Climate Change

“ExxonMobil sold oil and gas, but it also sold lies about climate science,” says state Attorney General.

by | Sep 22, 2020

SOUTHPORT, CT - AUGUST 30: Two women look at a home that had a tree fall on it during Tropical Storm Irene on August 30, 2011 in Southport, Connecticut. While the storm was milder than forecasters and politicians had predicted, it did cause extensive flood damage and power outages across the region. The storm, which knocked out power to more than 750,000 Connecticut homes and businesses, pounded the state with 60-mile-per-hour winds and drenching rain. Dozens of homes along the coast were destroyed and two deaths in Connecticut have been blamed on the storm. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The state of Connecticut is suing ExxonMobil, charging the oil major with “decades of deceit” on the risks of climate change that stem from burning fossil fuels.

“ExxonMobil sold oil and gas, but it also sold lies about climate science,” Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a press release. “ExxonMobil knew that continuing to burn fossil fuels would have a significant impact on the environment, public health and our economy. Yet it chose to deceive the public. No more.”

Tong filed the lawsuit in state court on Sept. 14.

Even as forests blaze across much of the Western U.S., including an unprecedented breakout of wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington State, fossil fuel companies face a torrent of climate accountability lawsuits from cities and states, with four new cases filed this month alone.

Hoboken, New Jersey sued several major fossil fuel firms on September 2, followed by Charleston, South Carolina and Delaware on September 9 and 10, respectively, .

All five of these cases center on allegations that the petroleum industry deliberately deceived the public on the climate risks of its fossil fuel products in order to stave off climate policies and protect profits.

“ExxonMobil’s strategy to create uncertainty about climate science successfully kept consumers purchasing ExxonMobil products by deceiving consumers about the serious harm caused by ExxonMobil’s industry and business practices,” Connecticut argues in its complaint. The state says this deception is ongoing through “greenwashed advertising” that downplays Exxon’s significant role in causing climate change while misleadingly portraying the company as seriously committed to solving the problem.

This deception, Connecticut argues, constitutes violations of the state’s anti-fraud statute, called the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act. Among its legal demands, the state wants Exxon to fund a “corrective education campaign to remedy the harm inflicted by decades of disinformation.” The state of Minnesota, which in June filed its own climate fraud suit against Exxon and several other major oil entities, is also seeking an industry-funded public education campaign that would counter the industry’s decades of climate disinformation.

Connecticut is facing diverse climate change-driven threats that will cost billions to mitigate, including rising sea levels, worsened air and water quality, and more extreme flooding, drought, hot temperatures, and storm.

“The success of ExxonMobil’s campaign of deception has helped to ensure that people of the State of Connecticut will continue to experience the catastrophic consequences of climate change for the foreseeable future,” the state notes in its suit.

Responding to a request for comment, Exxon spokesperson Casey Norton sharply criticized the lawsuit. “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,” Norton said in an emailed statement. “The claims are baseless and without merit. We look forward to defending the company in court.”

Connecticut is now the fifth state suing Exxon over alleged climate deception. Massachusetts filed its case in October 2019 accusing the company of misleading investors and consumers in violation of the state’s consumer protection law. At the time, Exxon was on trial in New York in a high-profile securities fraud case brought by the New York attorney general, accusing the company of misleading investors. Exxon ultimately prevailed in that case, but New York State Supreme Court Justice Barry Ostrager noted in his ruling last December that “nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change in the production of its fossil fuel products.”

The Massachusetts case against Exxon is advancing in Massachusetts state court. Other states that have filed climate accountability lawsuits include Rhode Island, which sued 21 fossil fuel companies in July 2018; Minnesota, which sued Exxon, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute on June 24 this year; and Delaware, which sued 30 fossil fuel companies plus API last week.

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine also filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against the four largest investor-owned oil and gas companies on June 25, just one day after Minnesota AG Keith Ellison announced his state’s suit.

Overall, 23 communities across the U.S. have filed climate accountability lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry over the last three years.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.