'Pivotal' Time for Big Oil as Massachusetts Sues ExxonMobil Over Climate Crisis Deception

Climate activists protested outside ExxonMobil's annual meeting of shareholders in Irving, Texas. (Photo: 350.org/Flickr/cc)

'Pivotal' Time for Big Oil as Massachusetts Sues ExxonMobil Over Climate Crisis Deception

"Exxon can't hide from its deception any longer."

The commonwealth of Massachusetts on Thursday sued ExxonMobil for allegedly deceiving consumers and investors about the risks its products pose to the climate crisis--a move seen by advocates as a tide-shifting moment for achieving fossil fuel accountability.

"Exxon has known for decades about the catastrophic climate impacts of burning fossil fuels--its chief product," said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. "Yet, to this day, Exxon continues to deceive Massachusetts consumers and investors about the dangerous climate harms caused by its oil and gasoline products and the significant risks of climate change--and efforts to address it--to Exxon's business. We are suing to stop this illegal deception and penalize the company for its misconduct."

The suit, filed Thursday in Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston, makes Massachusetts the second state after New York to sue ExxonMobil over such charges. Healey's suit, however, casts a wider net: New York's lawsuit focuses on just the company allegedly deceiving investors while Massachusetts' allegations include both deception of investors and consumers. As such, Healey called the Massachusetts lawsuit "the first of its kind."

The "culmination of a three-year investigation," Healey filed suit "two hours after a judge rejected a last-minute bid by Exxon to force Healey to hold-off from moving forward with her plans to sue it," Reutersreported.

The new legal action came two days after ExxonMobil faced its first day of a trial in New York state over allegedly defrauding investors about climate-related risks of burning fossil fuels, and a day after a U.S. House subcommittee held a hearing on the oil industry's decades-long "efforts to suppress the truth about climate change"--all of which follow explosive reporting from 2015 by InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times about ExxonMobil's decades-long campaign of climate suppression.

Among specific charges laid out in Healey's over 200-page complaint:

ExxonMobil misleads consumers by claiming its fossil fuel products reduce carbon dioxide emissions; deceptively fails to disclose in its advertising material information about the dangers to consumers of using its fossil fuel products; and misleadingly freenwashes its brand by falsely presenting itself as an environmentally responsible clean energy innovator, when in fact, ExxonMobil's products are a leading cause of climate change.

ExxonMobil has masterminded and implemented a tobacco industry-style campaign to sow doubt and confusion among the public, including investors and consumers of its products, about the climate science Exxon helped to develop.

"Between N.Y. lawsuit, Congressional hearings, & now this," tweeted scientist and activist Geoffrey Supran, "this is one of most pivotal weeks in history of global warming politics, & one of Exxon's worst."

What's more, the two lawsuits mark "just the tip of the iceberg," said Greenpeace USA Climate Campaign Director Janet Redman. "The New York and Massachusetts Attorneys General are now investigating Exxon for misleading the public and investors about the risks of climate change, and many more states are sure to come."

"Already," she continued, "over a dozen U.S. cities and counties--including New York City, San Francisco, Boulder, and Baltimore--have also launched lawsuits to hold Exxon and other fossil fuel companies financially responsible for their role in creating the climate crisis. Whatever comes up during this month's trial in New York and throughout the Massachusetts case could certainly be used by other public prosecutors and potential plaintiffs against Exxon in the future."

According to Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the developments suggests a real "tipping point" has come.

"Like the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, the fossil fuel industry must face the consequences of decades of science distortion and deceptive marketing," said Frumhoff. "These lawsuits provide real momentum toward climate justice."

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