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Minnesota Attorney General Sues Exxon Over Climate Change

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, pictured on June 3, is leading a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, pictured on June 3, is leading a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is suing Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute over what he calls "a campaign of deception" about climate change that the companies "orchestrated and executed with disturbing success."

Ellison and his office say internal documents show the oil and gas companies knew the damage that fossil fuels would cause as far back as the 1970s and '80s, yet hid that science and instead launched public relations campaigns denying climate change.

"They directly contradicted what their research found," Ellison tells NPR. "We can prove that and we will."

The lawsuit claims that the oil and gas companies violated Minnesota laws against consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices and false statements in advertising. Ellison said last week that the state is seeking "substantial" damages and for the companies to fund a public education campaign about climate change.

Exxon Mobil responded, calling the lawsuit part of an "ongoing coordinated, politically motivated campaign against energy companies."

"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," the company added, calling the claims "baseless and without merit."

Other states and cities have sued Exxon Mobil and other oil companies over climate change. Most recently, Exxon Mobil won a suit last year brought by New York's attorney general accusing the company of misleading investors.

Ellison talked with NPR's All Things Considered about the case.

Interview Highlights

On his supporting evidence

We have documents, such as one stamped "proprietary information" from Exxon Engineering, which says, "the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased" and "the rate of CO2 release from anthropogenic sources appears to be doubling every 15 years. The most widely held theory is that the increase is due to fossil fuel combustion."

That document was from Oct. 16, 1979. So they knew in '79 and then they lied about it. They actually, they produced propaganda, which essentially said things like: "Who told you the Earth was warming? Chicken Little?" And then other ones: "The most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is that it may not be true." They directly contradicted what their research found. We can prove that and we will.

On why the lawsuit begins by saying global warming will "disproportionately impact people living in poverty and people of color"

Well, because it's true, which is always important, to make sure that we tell the story about what's really going on here. So many civil rights groups that work on issues of racial and economic justice don't always factor in the environmental realities that people of color and low-income people face. I mean, the fact is, is that environmental justice and environmental harms that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income people is a civil rights issue and it should be treated as that. We've got to make sure that as people are working on criminal justice and things like that, that they factor in environmental justice, as urgent as it is.

On examples of how climate change is already impacting Minnesotans

If you're a farmer, you probably have seen much wetter fields than you've ever seen. Those wetter fields delay your growing season. You've seen infestation and pests that are impacting. There are a range of things that Minnesotans are seeing every day. We saw many of them join with us just last week.

One person who was with us was an environmentalist who is from the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe. And she was talking about how wild rice production has been dramatically impacted, which is a, she called it a sacred food of the Ojibwe people, and how that just climate change has so dramatically affected how they can harvest their crop.

NPR's Noah Caldwell and Dave Blanchard produced and edited the audio version of this interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.