DC Sues Fossil Fuel Giants for Decades of Spending Millions to 'Mislead Consumers and Discredit Climate Science in Pursuit of Profits'

Maxewell Rees and his brothers Daniel Rees and Jackson Rees sit on a park bench partly submerged due to seasonal flooding next to the Tidal Basin as cherry blossoms begin their annual blooming season March 29, 2010 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

DC Sues Fossil Fuel Giants for Decades of Spending Millions to 'Mislead Consumers and Discredit Climate Science in Pursuit of Profits'

"Climate denial is not a victimless crime. Now, one by one states and local governments are stepping up to hold the perpetrators accountable."

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine on Thursday sued fossil fuel giants BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell for "systematically and intentionally" misleading D.C. consumers about the role their products play in causing the climate crisis--following in the footsteps of other communities and states across the country, including Minnesota on Wednesday.

"For decades, these oil and gas companies spent millions to mislead consumers and discredit climate science in pursuit of profits," Racine said in a statement. "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."

Specifically, the Office of the Attorney General's (OAG) suit accuses the oil and gas companies of violating the District's Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA) "by engaging in misleading acts and practices around the marketing, promotion, and sale of fossil fuel products." According to the statement, those acts include:

  • Executing a long-term communications campaign to undermine climate change science;
  • Misrepresenting the scale of investments to reduce carbon emissions; and
  • Obscuring the damaging impact their products have on the environment.

The lawsuit (pdf) was filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Racine said that "OAG filed this suit to end these disinformation campaigns and to hold these companies accountable for their deceptive practices." The AG is seeking an injunction to prevent further CPPA violations and compensation for damages to the district.

Racine noted some of the impacts in a call with reporters: "The Tidal Basin now floods around 30 times a year--a fivefold increase from a few decades ago. And as our already-hot and muggy summers grow more punishing, our residents--especially District seniors and other vulnerable residents--will be exposed to heat illness."

The AG also discussed the findings of an investigation into the four companies' actions for over half a century that was conducted by Kate Konopka's team in the OAG Public Advocacy Division--a probe that led to the complaint filed Thursday. As he put it:

Drawing inspiration from Big Tobacco, the companies financed and employed industry associations and front groups to distort and conceal the dangers their fossil fuel products represented.

They hired a well-known fake grassroots group--the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition--used in the tobacco industry's disinformation campaign to manufacture public opposition to climate researchers and activists. And they hired some of the same scientists who falsely disputed the connection between tobacco use and cancer to do the same for fossil fuels and climate change.

As early as the 1950s these four companies knew carbon emissions created by burning fossil fuels would, in due time, pose an existential threat to humanity. These findings guided the companies as they privately made investments to protect their fossil fuel infrastructure from the effects of rising global temperatures. Publicly, however, they worked systematically and intentionally to generate doubt that climate change is man-made.

In a statement Thursday, Greenpeace USA climate campaign director Janet Redman celebrated D.C.'s suit against the world's four largest publicly-traded oil companies, declaring that "climate denial is not a victimless crime. Now, one by one states and local governments are stepping up to hold the perpetrators accountable."

"Just yesterday it was Minnesota Attorney General Ellison standing up to big oil, today it's D.C. Attorney General Racine," Redman said.

As Common Dreams reported, Ellison accused the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries of "fraud, deceptive advertising, and other violations of Minnesota state law and common law."

"We stand in solidarity with these efforts to put public health and human rights before polluters' profits," said Redman. "Even as the consequences of the climate crisis become increasingly plain to see, companies like Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP still pour millions of dollars into advertising, PR, and front groups to distort the science of climate change. Enough is enough."

Redman thanked Racine for his filing and urged other government officials to similarly demand justice and hold oil and gas giants accountable for wrecking the planet.

The fossil fuel industry's "denial and delay has deadly consequences for the Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities who bear the brunt of climate-fueled extreme weather and toxic pollution," she said. "As we confront the interwoven crises of climate change, systemic racism, and Covid-19, it would be unforgivable to return to a 'normal' in which fossil fuel CEOs continue to escape accountability for their deception."

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