The Big Apple won’t back down, and a Maryland county files suit
Anne Arundel County and New York City are the latest communities to file lawsuits against Big Oil
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Yet another big week for climate accountability: last Thursday, New York City took oil giants BP, Exxon, and Shell, and the largest oil and gas trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, to court for engaging in deceptive trade practices “about the central role their products play in causing the climate crisis.”
Their lawsuit comes just weeks after a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of NYC’s 2018 lawsuit against some of the same corporations for the cost of climate damages they knowingly caused, and goes to show that New York City won’t stop fighting for climate accountability.
Then, on Tuesday, Anne Arundel County joined Baltimore and Annapolis to become the third municipality in Maryland to file a lawsuit against Big Oil. That brings the total number of U.S. communities taking Big Oil to court to 26 — including five states, the District of Columbia, and now 20 cities and counties.
Here are the highlights:
New York City’s new lawsuit targets Big Oil for defrauding consumers on climate.
The complaint argues that the oil majors violated New York City’s consumer protection law by portraying themselves as leaders and good faith partners in the fight against climate change — all while these companies spend millions lobbying to block climate action, and their business actively causes and profits from the damage.
“Shell, Exxon, and BP recognize that their corporate image matters to their bottom line, and so they are spending millions of dollars to ‘green’ their brand, but not their business,” said Dave A. Chokshi, from the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The lawsuit references the companies’ many advertisements, social media posts, statements, and paid editorials in top media outlets that misrepresent their commitment to climate solutions. Like this one:
“This statement deceptively paints BP as a leader in the energy transition, while failing to disclose that BP’s investments in clean energy resources are minimal compared to their fossil fuel portfolio,” the complaint says of the company’s Twitter and Instagram bios, “Reimagining energy for people and our planet #bpNetZero.”
“Consumers are entitled to clear, accurate information about products they may choose,” said James E. Johnson, counsel for the city, in a statement. “We are bringing this litigation to protect that right. The defendants’ deceptive practices are squarely prohibited by New York City law and cannot be allowed to continue.”
The city’s new lawsuit is different from its first climate accountability case in a few key ways.
New York City’s 2018 lawsuit aimed to recover the billions it will need to spend to protect its coastlines, infrastructure and citizens from climate change from the “Big Five” oil companies: BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell. Perhaps most importantly, it was the only climate liability suit to date to be filed in federal court.
The city’s new lawsuit, on the other hand, was filed in New York State Supreme Court under the city’s consumer protection law, and deals with present-day consumer fraud. This lawsuit is the latest in a growing trend of complaints that focus on Big Oil’s lies and efforts to defraud consumers. It follows in the footsteps of Annapolis, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Connecticut, and now Anne Arundel County, which have filed their own consumer fraud lawsuits against Big Oil under their respective state and municipal consumer protection laws.
The suit also comes on the heels of the first-ever Federal Trade Commission complaint against a fossil fuel company (Chevron) for greenwashing, which was filed jointly by nonprofits Greenpeace, EarthWorks, and Global Witness in March.
"I think in some ways, this lawsuit should have better prospects, in that it's more difficult to argue that this kind of misrepresentation or consumer marketing violation is preempted by federal law," Dan Farber, faculty director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, told E&E News. "It's also further away from federal laws like the Clean Air Act or like the federal common law of nuisance, which was really pretty much the basis for throwing out the other lawsuit.”
New York City’s lawsuit “seeks relief to stop Defendants from engaging in the deceptive practices alleged in the complaint and to recover civil penalties for every violation of New York City’s Consumer Protection Law,” the city’s press release states.
Anne Arundel County, Maryland, sues oil majors for climate deception and damages.
The coastal county’s lawsuit was filed in Maryland state court for violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act and other claims, and seeks to make more than two dozen oil giants — including Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute — pay for the rising costs of adapting to flooding, sea-level rise, and other local climate damages the companies knowingly caused.
“There is a lot of evidence that the leaders of fossil fuel companies were aware of the damage their companies were doing for many years. And rather than shift to green technologies, they paid lobbyists and PR firms to cover up the truth,” said Steuart Pittman, County Executive of Anne Arundel, at a news conference Tuesday.
“So it's my obligation as a representative of the residents of this very vulnerable coastal land we live on to not only plan for the financing of resilience infrastructure but also to hold these companies accountable for their actions.”
Anne Arundel’s filing is just the latest in a bustle of climate accountability activity in Maryland. The city of Annapolis, in Anne Arundel County, filed suit in February, and in March, state legislators discussed legislation to give the Attorney General additional resources to bring a statewide suit.
The city of Baltimore’s climate liability suit is currently in front of the Supreme Court with respect to a procedural issue, and a decision is expected later this spring or summer.
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