AG Ellison sues fossil-fuel giants for lying

State joins growing list of government entities holding fossil-fuel industry accountable

Reader Contributing Staff 

“Minnesota is in the midst of a climate-change crisis. The world has already warmed approximately two degrees Fahrenheit (F) due to human-caused climate change; Minnesota has warmed even more. Warming will continue with devastating economic and public-health consequences across the state and, in particular, disproportionately impact people living in poverty and people of color.”

So begins Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s scathing 84-page lawsuit (other italicized items in this story are directly from the lawsuit) 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.

“Previously unknown internal documents were recently discovered that confirm that Defendants well understood the devastating effects that their products would cause to the climate, including Minnesota, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. But Defendants did not ever disclose to the public – or to Minnesotans – their actual knowledge that would confirm the very science they sought to under-mine. Instead, Defendants, both direct-ly and through proxies, engaged in a public-relations campaign that was not only false, but also highly effective.”

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,” Ellison said.

“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.
“During the period when Defendants and their proxies were deliberately
misleading Minnesotans about the consequences of using their products, Defendants realized massive profits through largely unabated and expanded extraction, production, promotion, marketing, and sale of their fossil-fuel products. For example, ExxonMobil earned approximately $775 billion in profits during this period.”

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 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 com-plaint 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.

“Human-caused warming of the Earth is unequivocal. As a result, the atmosphere and oceans are warming, sea level is rising, snow and ice cover is diminishing, oceans are acidifying, and hydrologic systems have been altered, among other environmental changes.

The mechanism by which human activity causes global warming and climate change is well established: ocean and atmospheric warming is overwhelmingly caused by anthro-pogenic greenhouse-gas emissions.

Greenhouse gases are largely byproducts of humans combusting fossil fuels to produce energy and using fossil fuels to create petrochemical products.”
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 said. “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 popu-lation 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, explains how young people feel about this action: “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.”

The lawsuit also names those who have been complicit in spreading the fossil fuel industry’s climate change deceptions, such as the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Center of the American
Experiment, Hoover Institute, Insti-tute for Energy Research, Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute, Reason Foundation, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The lawsuit especially calls out the Heartland Institute, which bills itself as the “world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.”

Noting that Heartland received funding from the defendants in the past, the lawsuit says the organization in recent years advanced the false claims that there is no consensus about the causes, effects or future rate of global warming; that global warming is primarily a natural phenomenon; and that the benefits of warming are likely to outweigh the costs. Heartland also claims responsibility for defeating cap and trade, a regulatory mechanism designed to curb harmful emissions.

Heartland, the lawsuit also points out, disseminates this false and misleading information to educators in Minnesota. For example, Heartland sent Minnesota educators, for free, a book offered for sale on Heartland’s website titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming: The NIPCC report on Scientific Consensus.

The first “Key Finding” of the book is: “The most important fact about
climate science, often overlooked, is that scientists disagree about the environmental impacts of the combustion of fossil fuels on the global climate.”

Most of the “findings” of the book are repeated from other Heartland Institute publications by the so-called “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change,” which consists of the same well-worn climate change

Impacts and costs of climate change

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, from 1951 to 2012, Minnesota’s climate warmed faster than both national and global rates of increase, with average annual temperature increasing by 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metro area. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, since 1960, the rate of climate warming in Minnesota has increased from 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade from the 1890s to the 1950s to 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit per decade beginning with the 1960s. These and other studies lay out many of the impacts of climate change on Minnesotans’ health and Minnesota’s environment and economy.

Pages 57–70 of the lawsuit also detail some of the many impacts and costs that Minnesota has incurred and will incur as a result of climate change that has gone unchecked and unregulated because of the defendants’ 30-year campaign of deception.

A copy of the complaint is available on Ellison’s website ( Video of the press conference at which Attorney General Ellison and other speakers announced the lawsuit will be available on Ellison’s YouTube channel.

Smoking guns?

The 1979 Exxon document and the 1980 document are key pieces of evidence submitted in Attorney General Keith Ellison’s lawsuit against several fossil fuel giants. Below are more details from the lawsuit regarding the climate change deception Ellison alleges:

“According to recently uncovered documents, by the 1970s, executives were being urged by their own scientists during this time to consider the industry’s role in advancing the science of and solutions to climate change. For example, in 1978, Exxon (now ExxonMobil) scientist Harold Weinberg proposed to colleagues that Exxon become the leader in trying to define and counteract the “CO2 problem.”

“The need to act quickly was also becoming clear during this period. In 1977, Exxon scientist James Black communicated to the Exxon Corporation Management Committee that ‘[p]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.’

Black also reported that “current scientific opinion overwhelmingly favors attributing atmospheric carbon dioxide increase to fossil fuel consumption,” and that doubling atmospheric CO2, according to the best climate model available, would “produce a mean temperature increase of about 2° C[elsius] to 3° C[elsius] over most of the earth,” with double to triple as much warming at the poles. And in 1982 it was pointed out to Exxon management that “once the effects [of global warming] are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

“Throughout the 1970s, it was becoming increasingly clear that climate change could have serious implications for Exxon’s business model. In 1977, Exxon scientist Henry Shaw circulated a memo to colleagues pointing out that the climatic effects of rising CO2 ‘may be the primary limiting factor on energy production from fossil fuels over the next few centuries.’

In a 1979 memorandum to Weinberg, Shaw wrote: ‘It behooves us to start a very aggressive defensive program in the indicated areas of atmospheric science and climate because there is a good probability that legislation affecting our business will be passed.’ And a 1979 letter from Exxon’s director of research, Edward David, to senior vice president George T. Piercy states that Exxon’s ongoing research ‘could well influence Exxon’s view about the longterm attractiveness of coal and synthetics relative to nuclear and solar energy.’

“An Exxon internal document from 1979 summarizes the state of the science at that time, reaching the damning conclusion that the present trend of fossil-fuel consumption would cause dramatic effects before 2050.”