If you didn’t get the memo, it’s Sue Big Oil Month

Delaware’s announcement came a day after Charleston’s, a week after Hoboken’s — and it didn’t stop there.

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So: we were all set to catch you up on the latest lawsuit holding fossil fuel giants accountable for lying about their role in the climate crisis (which, as is abundantly clear as wildfire smoke blankets the nation from coast to coast, has very much arrived). That latest lawsuit was supposed to be Delaware — until Connecticut filed suit against Exxon this Monday! THE PLOT THICKENS.

The country is catching on to this movement, and we’re not sorry about it. We’ll cover Delaware this week, and give you the rundown on the Nutmeggers next.

Here are the big takeaways:

Delaware will need to spend a pretty penny to survive a warming world, and it wants Big Oil to pony up.

As the lowest-lying state in the country, sea levels along Delaware’s coast are expected to rise an additional five feet by the end of the century, with 22,000 of its residents regularly subjected to coastal flooding. The state is already preparing to spend $60 million to address its problem with rising seas, including flooding prevention projects and wetland renourishment; by 2040, close to $9.4 billion may be required to build its seawalls alone.

Delaware is also one of the fastest-warming states in the nation, with dire consequences for public health; its vital agricultural and tourism sectors are struggling to prevent further losses from extreme weather, drought, and flooding. Storms like Hurricane Sandy are becoming a far more regular, multi-billion dollar phenomenon against which neighborhoods, homes and lives must be fortified. 

That’s where a certain multi-billion-dollar industry — which made its profits while concealing crucial information about the connection between its products and climate change — could come into play. On September 10, Attorney General Kathleen Jennings filed suit against 31 fossil fuel majors on behalf of the entire state of Delaware — making it the fourth state after Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Minnesota to take on Big Oil for climate damages and for  fraud. The kingpin polluters involved are being charged with some of the standard damages claims — public nuisance, trespass, and failure to warn — along with violations of the state’s Consumer Fraud Act. 

“Delawareans are already paying for the malfeasance of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies,” the Attorney General said in a statement. “Exxon, Chevron, and other mega-corporations knew exactly what kind of sacrifices the world would make to support their profits, and they deceived the public for decades. Now we are staring down a crisis at our shores, and taxpayers are once again footing the bill for damage to our roads, our beaches, our environment, and our economy. We are seeking accountability from some of the world’s most powerful businesses to pay for the mess they’ve made.”

This is the third lawsuit this year to target the American Petroleum Institute.

The state of Minnesota, the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, and now Delaware have changed the game by including the American Petroleum Institute (API) — the world’s largest oil and gas trade association — in the list of companies they’re taking to court for defrauding the public about climate change.

API is known for operating a network of front groups that worked to market climate disinformation on behalf of the industry’s top polluters, including Exxon, Shell, BP and Chevron. In recent years, its efforts to outright deny climate change have developed into expensive behind-the-scenes lobbying against climate policy and greenwashing campaigns to conceal the industry’s ongoing role in heating the planet.

“Fossil Fuel Defendants used their control over and involvement in API to further their goal of influencing consumer demand for their fossil fuel products through a long-term advertising and communications campaign centered on climate change denialism,” reads the complaint. 

Including API in the lawsuit could eventually unlock a treasure trove of documents providing further evidence of the industry’s massive con — as was the case when similar associations representing the tobacco industry, which of course included many of the same groups and people, were hauled into court. Karen Sokol, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, told Bloomberg that API’s inclusion could “provide a lot of information to the public” and lead to a “more powerful trial.”

The lawsuit centers the disproportionate damage done to Delaware’s communities of color — and demands that polluters help fund their efforts to adapt.

“Climate change will have and has already had devastating economic and public health impacts across the State of Delaware, and will disproportionately impact people of color and people living in poverty,” reads the first paragraph of the complaint.

The lawsuit describes the range of impacts these communities have inherited: extreme heat, toxic air pollution, flooding, and severe weather events made more damaging by a deep legacy of housing and income inequality in the state. As noted in the complaint, Black and Hispanic Delawareans are respectively more than twice and three times as likely to experience poverty as non-Hispanic white Delawareans. 

As a 2017 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, residents of New Castle County, where oil refineries abound, face far higher rates of cancer and respiratory risk. And because of redlining in the 1940s and 50s that led Wilmington’s Black communities to largely occupy new and public housing properties over a filled marsh, these same neighborhoods have long experienced perennial flooding that’s now dramatically worsened thanks to rising seas. That tracks with a recent E&E News analysis of federal flood insurance payments, which found that flooding disproportionately impacts Black neighborhoods in the U.S. 

“The racial and ethnic disparities in Delaware’s poverty rate further compound the increased risk that Black and brown Delawareans face from climate change, because low-income communities and communities of color are often unable to prepare in advance for events caused or exacerbated by climate change, and are forced to use a bigger proportion of their resources to rebuild in the aftermath - or are unable to rebuild at all,” reads the complaint. 

If monetary damages are awarded, these disparities are something elected officials in Delaware could begin to address by distributing funds to those residents with the greatest needs.

Delaware’s elected leaders aren’t shying away from this one.

“For too long, there has been a concerted effort by some in the fossil fuel industry to mislead the public about the science behind climate change and its devastating effects,” said U.S. Senator Tom Carper, who serves as Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in the state’s press release. “...It is unfortunate that litigation is necessary to drag those remaining bad actors into the light, but my hope is that this litigation will hold those actors accountable.”

Senator Carper isn’t the only one voicing support for climate accountability. I feel like there’s someone famous and important from Delaware who I’m forgetting…

Oh. Right. And this isn’t the first time Democratic presidential nominee Biden has signaled his support for climate accountability, either.

*checks watch* Who’s next?


ICYMI News Roundup


Until next week — stay safe!

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