Taking on Big Oil is good politics
Here’s how state climate accountability lawsuits — and the officials who brought them — fared this election.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
There was no shortage of crucial issues on the ballot this year — including the fight to hold fossil fuel giants accountable for their role in the climate crisis. Across the country, attorneys general who have sued Big Oil were re-elected, while other offices will change hands to new leaders who are expected to continue prosecuting those cases. Overall, taking on the world’s biggest polluters proved a politically popular move for candidates who campaigned on climate accountability.
Here’s our overview on how the issue fared in this midterm election.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison sued ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and Koch Industries in 2020 for orchestrating a decades-long campaign to mislead Minnesotans about the damage fossil fuels would cause to the climate. His opponent called the lawsuit “frivolous” and made it an election issue during this year’s campaign. But Ellison vociferously defended the case, and he just won re-election.
“This lawsuit is in the long and successful tradition of Minnesota attorneys general standing up to protect Minnesotans from corporate fraud and deception by Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and now Big Oil," Ellison told the Star Tribune in August. "This is what Minnesotans expect from their attorney general. It's the right fight to be having."
Ellison’s consumer fraud lawsuit seeks to make Exxon, Koch and API fund a corrective campaign to educate the public about the climate crisis, publish all of their internal research on climate change, and disgorge the profits they made through false advertising, among other remedies.
Last year, a federal court handed Minnesota a victory when it ruled the case could proceed in state court, where it was filed. U.S. Chief District Judge John Tunheim described the fossil fuel defendants’ arguments to move the case to federal court as a “caricature” of the state’s actual claims. The state is now awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on Big Oil’s appeal of that decision.
Maura Healey, one of the first attorneys general to take Exxon to court, was overwhelmingly elected the next governor of Massachusetts after featuring her lawsuit against Exxon in campaign ads. Healey campaigned on her role as a prosecutor standing up for consumers against the abuse of corporate giants. “She stood up to ExxonMobil for lying about climate change,” touted one of her ads.
The commonwealth’s newly elected attorney general, Andrea Campbell, has vowed to carry on many of Healey’s climate and environmental initiatives including “challeng[ing] industry actions that mislead Massachusetts consumers and investors about the risks of climate change.” In May, the Massachusetts Supreme Court unanimously rejected Exxon’s motion to dismiss the case, which is now actively in discovery as it heads toward trial in state court.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong was re-elected after he filed a lawsuit in 2020 to hold Exxon accountable for an “ongoing systematic campaign of lies and deception” about the polluter’s role in the climate crisis. Last year, Connecticut won a federal district court ruling to keep its consumer protection case in state court. It now awaits a ruling on Exxon’s appeal of that decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha wasn’t in office when the Ocean State filed the first statewide climate damages suit against Big Oil companies in 2018. But since coming into office, Neronha has carried the litigation forward, seeking to hold major fossil fuel companies accountable for the local costs of rising seas and more severe storms. This week, he too won re-election.
Rhode Island won a major victory against Big Oil earlier this year, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the case could proceed in state court. “After decades of climate change deception by the fossil fuel defendants, and now nearly four years of delay tactics in our lawsuit to hold them accountable for it, our residents, workers, businesses and taxpayers are ready for their day in court," Neronha said in response.
Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings handily won her re-election this week, too, after she sued 31 fossil fuel companies for climate fraud and damages in 2020.
In August, Delaware won the latest federal appeals court ruling against Big Oil, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision to let the case proceed in state court.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan did not seek re-election this cycle after he filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Exxon, Shell, Sunoco, and CITGO last year. But the campaign manager of Vermont’s next attorney general, Charity Clark, recently told E&E that the office would continue litigating the case.
Vermont’s lawsuit seeks to stop the companies from lying to consumers through greenwashing and other deceptive practices, as well as force them to disgorge profits they made “as a result of unlawful acts or practices.”
A federal district court is now considering Vermont’s motion to allow the lawsuit to proceed in state court, where it was filed.
Brian Schwalb, the District of Columbia’s next attorney general, is poised to take over former Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s consumer protection lawsuit against Exxon, BP, Chevron, and Shell for their “sophisticated, coordinated, tobacco-industry style campaigns involving industry associations and front groups to deceive and mislead the public.” Racine, who filed the case in 2020, did not seek re-election. A federal district court is now considering D.C.’s motion to bring the case back to state court.
Another attorney general who won re-election, California’s Rob Bonta, has not filed a lawsuit against Big Oil, but in April he did launch an investigation into how fossil fuel and petrochemical companies are deceiving the public about the efficacy of plastics recycling. As part of that investigation, he issued a subpoena for documents to Exxon, whose oil and gas products are used to make plastic, for its outsized role in an “aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis.”
All told, one lesson to take away from this election: standing with people over polluters will get you places.
ICYMI News Roundup
Thanks for reading ExxonKnews! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.