Delaware Just Sued 30 Fossil Fuel Companies and the American Petroleum Institute Over Climate 'Denial and Disinformation'

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Flood damage from Hurricane Irene at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.

Delaware, the home state of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, announced on Thursday, September 10 that it is taking dozens of major oil and gas companies including BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil to court over the rising costs of climate impacts such as sea level rise and coastal flooding.

Like other U.S. states and municipalities suing the fossil fuel industry, Delaware says that the industry knew half a century ago about the likely climate impacts resulting from the use of its products, but instead of warning the public or changing their business model, the fossil fuel companies engaged in campaigns to attack climate science and downplay the risks of burning coal, oil, and gas in order to stave off policy responses.

Delawareans are already paying for the malfeasance of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies,” Attorney General Kathy Jennings said in a press release. “Exxon, Chevron, and other mega-corporations knew exactly what kind of sacrifices the world would make to support their profits, and they deceived the public for decades. Now we are staring down a crisis at our shores, and taxpayers are once again footing the bill for damage to our roads, our beaches, our environment, and our economy. We are seeking accountability from some of the world’s most powerful businesses to pay for the mess they’ve made.”

The lawsuit, filed September 10 in Delaware Superior Court, a state court, seeks monetary damages to help pay for costs the state is already incurring and that are expected to mount as climate impacts worsen.

As noted in Delaware’s complaint, the state has the lowest average elevation of any state in the country and more than 22,000 residents are currently threatened by coastal flooding. Sea level rise puts at risk over $1 billion in property value as well as the state’s $3.5 billion tourism industry with the loss of beaches. Communities of color and low-income communities in the state are especially vulnerable to extreme heat events, which are expected to substantially increase in frequency in the coming decades.

The science is clear that these climate impacts are directly attributable to the products produced by fossil fuel companies,” Shawn Garvin, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said in the press release.

These kinds of impacts could have been largely avoided or mitigated, Delaware contends, had the fossil fuel industry not actively misled the public about the risks of its product.

For too long, there has been a concerted effort by some in the fossil fuel industry to mislead the public about the science behind climate change and its devastating effects,” U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), who serves as Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in the press release. “While some companies have since seen the error of their ways, and are now working in good faith to find climate solutions, others have poured millions, maybe billions of dollars into hiding the truth about climate change. The people of Delaware see the effects of climate change in Delaware every day. Families and businesses in our state are already experiencing the environmental and economic consequences of the worsening climate crisis. It is unfortunate that litigation is necessary to drag those remaining bad actors into the light, but my hope is that this litigation will hold those actors accountable.”

Delaware is bringing its lawsuit under legal claims of public nuisance, trespass, negligent failure to warn, and violations of the state’s Consumer Fraud Act. Defendants include 29 major oil and gas companies, one coal company, and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest trade association for the U.S. oil and gas industry. It is the third lawsuit filed in the last few months targeting API, which had been left out of an earlier wave of climate lawsuits. Minnesota, which announced its climate lawsuit on June 24, and Hoboken, New Jersey, which filed its suit last week, also include the Big Oil trade group as a defendant.

As detailed in Delaware’s complaint, API was one of the main industry organizations behind a “sustained and widespread campaign of denial and disinformation about the existence of climate change.” This deceptive behavior, the complaint argues, is ongoing with API and some of its member companies misrepresenting the industry’s investments in clean energy and climate solutions through “greenwashing” marketing and advertising campaigns.

API did not immediately respond to a request for comment from DeSmog.

Phil Goldberg, Special Counsel for the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project and a former coal lobbyist whose law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon has defended Big Tobacco, issued a statement sharply criticizing what he calls “politically-motivated legal actions over climate change.” The Manufacturers’ Accountability Project is an initiative of the National Association of Manufacturers, which represents fossil fuel producers and created the project to counter the growing wave of climate liability litigation.

Delaware’s lawsuit does nothing to advance meaningful solutions to climate change,” Goldberg said.

But in a press conference held Thursday, Attorney General Jennings said her office’s lawsuit was not premised on “solving” climate change.

It is not about stopping climate change,” she said. “It is about Delaware surviving it.”

'Wave of Lawsuits' Demand Accountability for Climate Crisis

Delaware is the fourth state, and the 22nd community overall in the U.S., to turn to the courts in an effort to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for harms resulting from the climate crisis. Delaware’s climate accountability lawsuit is the third such case filed in the past week, and the second in the last two days, with the city of Charleston, South Carolina, filing its complaint on September 9.

The climate crisis Big Oil caused is engulfing the nation, and it is costing communities billions of dollars,” Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, an initiative that supports climate accountability lawsuits, said in a press statement. “With more than 20 climate lawsuits filed against them, and three in just the last eight days, it is clear that Big Oil is facing its ‘Big Tobacco moment,’ and accountability is coming for them.”

The latest climate accountability lawsuits come at a time when the nation is suffering through several simultaneous crises, including the ongoing climate emergency. This has played out in dramatic and destructive fashion in recent weeks with Hurricane Laura slamming the Gulf Coast and leaving the shores and waters coated with spilled oil and petrochemicals, and widespread wildfires burning across millions of acres in the western U.S., turning skies an eerie shade of orange and resulting in at least seven deaths so far and several communities destroyed.  

It is really remarkable, in the midst of the chaos of 2020, cities and states are prioritizing climate crisis accountability,” Kert Davies, director of the watchdog and research organization Climate Investigations Center, told DeSmog via email. “This wave of lawsuits is bad news for the fossil fuel mob and it is very good news that cities and states nationwide are waking up to the rising costs of the climate crisis, and they recognize exactly who to blame for the delay and denial that has cost us precious time.”

Biden Pledges Support for Climate Litigation

Former Vice President Joe Biden has indicated his support for polluter accountability. His environmental justice plan includes a statement pledging to “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters.”  

Biden’s home state could see up to six feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, a looming threat that Attorney General Jennings and Secretary Garvin noted in Thursday’s press conference.

Big Oil knew its products and practices would cause ‘catastrophic’ climate consequences,” Jennings said. “We are suing to hold [Big Oil] accountable and to make them pay for the damages done to our state.”

Main image: Flood damage from Hurricane Irene at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain

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