D.C. drags oil giants into court for climate denial and deception

Attorney General Racine’s lawsuit makes an argument for accountability that’s hard to beat.

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Remember that glorious week at the end of June, when Minnesota and D.C. both filed consumer protection lawsuits against the kingpins of the fossil fuel industry? 

Today we’re going to look  into the suit District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine brought under the District’s consumer protection law. The complaint explains why the world’s most powerful oil corporations should face full legal accountability, so we thought you should have the highlights:

D.C. is suing four of the world’s biggest oil companies Exxon, Shell, Chevron and BP for lying to consumers about climate change.

Racine’s lawsuit targets the oil giants’ “sophisticated, coordinated, tobacco-industry style campaigns involving industry associations and front groups to deceive and mislead the public” — especially as they were deployed in the nation’s capital.

“Defendants’ deceptive and unlawful conduct targeted consumers in the District, and in significant part occurred in the District, including through print advertisements in the District and electronic advertisements provided to DC consumers, including the Washington Post, as well as at District train stations and airports,” the complaint continues. 

One example of many cited in the complaint: a 1997 “advertorial” published in the Washington Post which stated, quite literally, that “Climate scientists don’t say that burning oil, gas and coal is steadily warming the earth.” 👀 

Just this past October, two former Exxon scientists (among other experts) came to D.C. to testify at a Congressional hearing on “Examining the Oil Industry’s Efforts to Suppress the Truth about Climate Change.” 

There, in front of Congress, physicist Martin Hoffert described Exxon’s deep knowledge and advanced research into climate change — and then the great efforts they went to to distort their own findings. "What they did was wrong,” he said. “They deliberately created doubt when their internal research confirmed how serious a threat it was.”

Not a lot of other industries have gone to this extent to pull the wool over their customers’ eyes but Big Oil borrowed more than just inspiration from the ones that did.

It’s no accident that Big Oil’s crimes, and the lawsuits seeking to hold them accountable, echo a similar story from Big Tobacco. AG Racine’s complaint outlines how the oil companies actually bankrolled some of the same organizations and scientists that published disinformation for the tobacco industry during its own campaigns to defraud the public.

The complaint calls out the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a fake grassroots group created by the tobacco industry to muddy up the link between smoking cigarettes and adverse health effects. TASSC went on to become founding members of the “Global Climate Science Communications Team,” a fossil fuel industry front group convened by the American Petroleum Institute (API) to promote the very same style of science denial.

Climate change deception has had “particularly severe impacts” on communities of color.

D.C.’s filing is the second — only after Minnesota’s — to say explicitly that Big Oil’s actions have fueled racial inequities and injustice. 

Between deadly heat waves, chronic air pollution, now-regular flooding of its two surrounding rivers and Tidal Basin, and more frequent and damaging storms, Washington, D.C. is paying the price for Big Oil’s corruption. These impacts end up falling hardest on Black and Brown communities plagued by inequitable access to healthcare, zoning, redlining and other existing structural inequalities, who can least afford to prepare and rebuild. 

As just one example, heat mapping research from 2019 found that wealthier white neighborhoods in the District are significantly less affected by heat waves than the heavily industrialized, lower-income Black communities in its northeast, who tend to be least equipped with air conditioning and exhibit higher rates of asthma and other pollution-related illnesses. 

“The District will continue to experience flooding, extreme weather, and heat waves exacerbated by climate change, with particularly severe impacts in low-income communities and communities of color,” the complaint reads.

Big Oil has the gall to keep deceiving consumers today.

Our analysis of six months of Big Oil’s Twitter feeds found that their advertising, centering around “clean alternatives” and “low-carbon solutions,” is a total misrepresentation of their almost total reliance on fossil fuels and a future of climate destruction. D.C.’s complaint explores that problem in even greater depth, posing defendants’ current operations and future plans against ad campaigns that paint a green (and entirely false) picture of their business.

As one example cited in the complaint, Chevron and Exxon each used just 0.2% of their capital spending on “greener” energy between 2010 and 2018 while claiming to have invested meaningfully in clean alternatives and putting the onus on consumer choice.

“These campaigns misleadingly portray Defendants as part of the solution to climate change and distract from the fact that Defendants’ fossil fuel products are the primary driver of global warming,”  the complaint reads. “Defendants have cut fossil fuels from their brand but not their business.” 

What now?

If other climate lawsuits are any guide, Big Oil's attorneys will almost certainly respond to D.C.'s suit by trying to get it moved into federal court and dismissed. However, in case after case this strategy has failed for the oil companies. And legal experts say that cases brought on local consumer protection laws — like DC’s and Minnesota's — will be even harder for the industry to move out of state court.

Whatever comes next, says founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Mike Tidwell, the District should be congratulated for taking the bull by the horns. “By suing polluters the District of Columbia is showing the world what it means to be a climate champion,” Tidwell said. “The climate crisis is a crime scene with fossil fuel executives’ fingerprints all over it. We hope the country will follow the lead of its capital and bring the fossil fuel industry to court." 

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