By Karen Savage
Washington D.C. has filed a lawsuit against oil majors ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell, accusing them of deceiving consumers about climate change risks and engaging in a coordinated decades-long campaign to mislead the public, attorney general Karl A. Racine announced on Thursday.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of suits that attempt to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its role in climate change, with this one and one filed Wednesday by the state of Minnesota both specifically targeting the industry’s pattern of deception.
The lawsuit, filed in Washington’s Superior Court, alleges the companies knew as early as the 1950s that emissions from burning oil and gas posed an existential threat to humanity. Instead of warning consumers, the district alleges the companies engaged in a multi-decade, multi-million dollar public relations campaign to cast doubt on climate research in order to protect their profits.
Similar to a suit filed yesterday by Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison, Racine alleges the companies violated his district’s consumer protection laws.
“For decades, these oil and gas companies spent millions to mislead consumers and discredit climate science in pursuit of profits,” Racine said. “The defendants violated the District’s consumer protection law by concealing the fact that using fossil fuels threatens the health of District residents and the environment. OAG (Office of Attorney General) filed this suit to end these disinformation campaigns and to hold these companies accountable for their deceptive practices.”
Racine is asking the court for an injunction to prevent the companies from engaging in further violations and to compensate the city for damage they have caused.
“The heart of this suit is about how these companies represented science as well as the state of their business,” Racine said, adding that for decades the companies tried to paint a “false picture” of the harms caused by their products.
The District of Columbia joins dozens of municipalities across the country that have filed climate change-related lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. Most, including a suit filed in 2018 by Rhode Island, have asserted state claims, including public nuisance, private nuisance, failure to warn, trespass, and negligence. A handful, including suits filed in recent years by attorneys general in New York, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, have charged the companies with defrauding consumers, investors or both.
ExxonMobil said D.C.’s lawsuit is “baseless and without merit,” re-issuing the same statement it used to characterize Minnesota’s suit.
“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,” Exxon spokesman Casey Norton said. “ExxonMobil will continue to invest in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy.”
Chevron spokesman Sean Comey also denounced the claims as meritless.
“This type of litigation detracts from constructive efforts to address the important policy issues presented by climate change,” Comey said.
In the suit, Racine alleged the companies’ deception is ongoing through greenwashing campaigns; the companies now prey on efforts by consumers to make environmentally conscientious choices.
“[Exxon, BP, Chevron and Shell] portray themselves as working to reduce reliance on fossil fuels through investment in alternative energy sources, but defendants’ investments in low-carbon energy are negligible,” Racine wrote.
Climate change-related impacts are already impacting D.C. and threatening the city’s infrastructure and community resources. Due to sea level rise and subsidence, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers have risen 11 inches in the past 90 years.
Average annual temperatures in D.C. have increased by 2 degrees from 50 years ago and the trend is expected to continue, according to the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment. D.C.’s average summer highs are expected to increase from 87 degrees to between 93 and 97 degrees by 2080. Heat emergencies, which are put into effect when the heat index, a combination of air temperature and humidity reaches 95, are expected to rise. D.C. currently averages 30 heat emergency days per year and is projected to have up to 45 by 2050 and as high as 75 by 2080.
The suit also addresses what it contends are efforts by the companies to shift the blame for climate change from the fossil fuel industry to consumers.
“Defendants’ greenwashing campaigns further minimize their role in causing climate change, including by suggesting that small changes in consumer choice and behavior can adequately address climate change,” Racine said in the suit.
Shell, Chevron and BP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.