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New Jersey lawsuit says oil and gas companies lied about global warming

New Jersey Division officials today filed a lawsuit on behalf of state residents against five oil and gas companies and a petroleum trade association, alleging they knowingly made false claims to deceive the public about the existence of climate change and the degree to which their fossil fuels products have been acerbating anthropogenic global warming.

The suit filed today in New Jersey Superior Court in Mercer County names as defendants Exxon Mobil Corporation, Shell Oil Company, Chevron Corporation, BP, ConocoPhillips, and the trade group in which these defendants were members — American Petroleum Institute (API).

The state is seeking to hold the defendants accountable for systematically concealing and denying their knowledge that fossil fuel consumption could have a catastrophic impact on the climate, causing the devastating consequences of fossil fuel overconsumption: the significant sea level rise, flooding, and extreme weather that have battered New Jersey’s citizens and businesses, requiring the state and its residents to shoulder the enormous costs of rebuilding, hardening New Jersey’s defenses against severe weather and making the necessary transition away from reliance on fossil fuels to a more sustainable clean-energy future.

API is accused of playing a key role in orchestrating and implementing climate denial campaigns on behalf of and under the supervision of the fossil fuel defendants.

The state alleges that the defendant oil and gas producers and API have known for decades that use of fossil fuels is a major cause of climate change, but instead of warning the public about the danger, they launched public-relations campaigns to sow doubts about the existence, causes, and effects of climate change with the goal of confusing the public, delaying the transition to a lower carbon economy and future, increasing their own profits, and further deepening dependence on their products.

“Based on their own research, these companies understood decades ago that their products were causing climate change and would have devastating environmental impacts down the road,” said Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin. “They went to great lengths to hide the truth and mislead the people of New Jersey, and the world. In short, these companies put their profits ahead of our safety. It’s long overdue that the facts be aired in a New Jersey court, and the perpetrators of the disinformation campaign pay for the harms they’ve caused.”

“New Jersey is ground zero for some of the worst impacts of climate change,” said Shawn M. LaTourette, the state’s Commissioner of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). “Our communities and environment are continually recovering from extreme heat, furious storms, and devastating floods. These conditions will sadly only worsen in the decades ahead, leaving us scrambling to prepare for a parade of harmful climate changes. All this while we rush to ween ourselves off the very products these companies have long known would fuel our pain but deceived New Jerseyans about, because keeping us addicted was better for their bottom line. It was wrong to mislead us; wrong to undermine climate science; wrong to put profit over people and the planet that we share. It is time New Jersey demands accountability.”

“Our Shore communities have had to rebuild boardwalk landmarks, construct large dunes and devise other engineering solutions to recover from and respond to devastating storms. And some of our most vulnerable communities are now subjected to increasingly frequent bouts of significant flooding, with sometimes fatal consequences,” said Cari Fais, dcting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “Our state is paying dearly for these defendants’ misrepresentations and failure to disclose the enormous detriments of their products. They should now help to shoulder that tremendous financial burden.”

In addition to asking the court for an injunction ordering the energy companies to stop deceiving New Jersey consumers about the destructive environmental impacts of fossil fuels, the state is seeking civil monetary penalties and damages, including natural resource damages such as the loss of substantial wetlands throughout the state, alleging taxpayers will be saddled with billions in expenses to protect communities from rising sea levels, deadlier storms, and other climate-related harms and to mitigate those harms by transitioning to non-fossil fuel energy generation — costs that should be borne by the defendants.

According to the complaint, the oil and gas companies researched the link between fossil-fuel consumption and climate change starting as early as the 1950s, and by the mid-60s gained a comprehensive understanding of the adverse climate impacts of fossil fuels.

Internal fossil fuel industry documents reveal how the oil and gas producers’ scientists predicted that ongoing burning of fossil fuels would cause “dramatic environmental effects,” warning corporate executives that the world had a narrow window of time to curb emissions and stave off “catastrophic” climate change.

The documents also show how the fossil fuel defendants allegedly took the internal warnings seriously, assessing how climate change would impact their infrastructure, investing to protect their own assets from sea-level rise and increasingly extreme weather, and patenting technologies that would expand their profits as the world grew warmer.

But the defendants allegedly failed to warn the public about what was coming. On the contrary, according to the complaint, the defendant oil and gas producers worked to manufacture doubt about the existence and causes of climate change.

The complaint alleges the defendant fossil fuel companies violated the Consumer Fraud Act by misrepresenting, suppressing, and omitting material facts about the adverse impacts of their products through a national climate-denialist campaign starting in the 1980s and continuing through today, in which they used industry associations and front groups such as API to disseminate false and misleading information about climate change.

The complaint alleges the companies fell short of their legal obligation to warn consumers about all the hidden or latent dangers arising from the use of their products. The complaint also alleges negligence, impairment of the public trust, trespass, and public nuisance.

According to the suit, when the public became increasingly aware of the causes and consequences of climate change despite the defendants’ fraudulent messaging, the oil companies allegedly shifted to a campaign of “greenwashing”—i.e., misleadingly presenting their fossil-fuel products as “clean” and “green,” while overstating their negligibly small investments in safer technologies in an attempt to falsely present themselves to consumers as environmentally responsible corporate leaders trying to combat climate change.

The complaint alleges that the defendants’ distortions drove continued fossil-fuel usage, accelerating climate change and the adverse impacts it causes: driving sea level rise, heat waves, drought, extreme weather events, and other environmental ills.

The fossil fuel industry’s alleged fraud and the climate changes their products have driven are disproportionately harming low-income communities and communities of color, particularly those individuals residing in overburdened communities already subject to adverse cumulative environmental and public health stressors, where extreme heat and chronic flooding are having damaging results to public health and safety.

Several attorneys general in other states have brought similar legal claims against the fossil-fuel industry, including Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen cities and counties have also filed lawsuits accusing oil and gas companies of misleading the public about climate change, including the City of Hoboken.

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine on June 25, 2020, sued Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell for systematically and intentionally misleading consumers about the role their products play in causing climate change.

That lawsuit alleged that major players in the fossil fuel industry knew as early as the 1950s that emissions from burning oil and gas posed an existential threat to humanity—and in response, the companies embarked on a multi-decade, multi-million-dollar public relations campaign to foment doubt and hostility towards climate research in order to protect profits.

New York City launched a climate change lawsuit against the biggest oil companies in 2018, demanding that ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and ConocoPhillips pay for the cost of protecting the city from the “existential threat” of climate change.

The city also announced a goal to divest its $189 billion pension system from fossil fuel reserve owners within five years.

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