NEW HAVEN — State Attorney General William Tong sued ExxonMobil on Monday, citing decades of research into climate science by the company and what he called its campaign of deceit to hide fossil fuel’s damage to the environment.
Tong announced the filing of the lawsuit at the Canal Dock Boathouse on New Haven Harbor, which he said had been built to withstand sea level rise caused by climate change.
The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Hartford, is stronger than other such actions, Tong said, because Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act has no statute of limitations, enabling the Attorney General’s Office to examine ExxonMobil’s internal documents dating back to the 1950s.
“Connecticut is launching a major offensive in the fight against climate change,” Tong said. “This morning, I sued ExxonMobil for lying to Connecticut and to the American people. ExxonMobil has known, for decades and decades going as far back as 1950 … about the debilitating effects of climate change, the catastrophic effects of sea level rise and a warming planet.”
Tong said ExxonMobil had researched the effects of fossil fuels such as gasoline on the climate beginning in the 1950s. “It was ExxonMobil that was on the front lines, on the vanguard of climate science. And they had a choice,” he said. “They could have shared that climate science with all of us, and they could have shown us the way in how we confront the climate crisis and reverse the effects of climate change.”
But in the late 1980s, he said, the company “made a very different decision. They decided instead … to conceal the science and to lie to all of us, the American people. And they began a campaign of deception, using their tremendous resources.” In what he called “greenwashing,” Tong said ExxonMobil has used ads to claim that it is working to reverse climate change, such as its research in algae-based biofuels. “We see that as more deception,” he said. “They’re really not making significant investments in that as well.”
Tong compared ExxonMobil’s public relations campaign to that of Big Tobacco, which in 2006 settled a lawsuit claiming tobacco companies used disinformation to sow doubt about the role of tobacco in cancer and other diseases. ExxonMobil, Tong said, has used similar tactics to create uncertainty about the role of climate change. “A great many people in our state and our country still believe that it is a hoax and not real,” he said.
ExxonMobil, based in Irving, Texas, is the 13th-largest company in the world and the sixth-largest in the United States, with $256 billion in sales, according to Forbes.
Many of the company’s internal documents have been published in the public domain. Tong said those documents alone present a strong case against the fuel giant. “They knew that the climate was warming, that greenhouse gases posed an existential threat,” Tong said. “They knew that we would experience more and more extreme weather events. They knew how it would affect our food suppply and our water supply,” as well as creating air pollution.
“They took action to conceal these facts from the American people,” Tong said.
He said the suit, drawn up by his office’s Environment Department, led by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine, would seek “the disgorgement of the profits that ExxonMobil has made in concealing the truth about climate change,” restitution for costs incurred by the state, disclosure of “every shred of climate science that they have.”
The lawsuit cites examples of ExxonMobil’s campaign to downplay the climate crisis, including “advertorials” in the New York Times. In one, published in 1997, the company stated, “We don’t know enough about the factors that affect global warming and the degree to which — if any — that man-made emissions (namely carbon dioxide) contribute to increases in the Earth’s temperature.”
The same ad described the “‘precautionary [and] voluntary’ ways in which Mobil is ‘reducing emissions at the source and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere [by] supporting research and technology efforts, curtailing our own greenhouse gas emissions and helping customers scale back their emissions of carbon dioxide.’”
Tong said the West Coast wildfires and recent hurricanes have shown how climate change is devastating the lives of people. He said he had spoken with Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum about the fires. “She’s literally in her house in a bunker because that’s the safest place, and the cleanest place frankly, the cleanest air in her house while the rest of her state is literally on fire,” Tong said.
Mayor Justin Elicker said a rising water level in New Haven Harbor threatens Tweed New Haven Regional Airport, Ikea and other businesses on Long Wharf and Metro-North’s maintenance yard. He said a predicted rise of as much as 20 feet is costing the city millions of dollars it could be using for services. “Because of sea level rise and because of our inaction historically to address climate change, we are likely to head in that direction,” he said.
“This is money we could be spending on the vital things to keep our community safe, to educate our community, to ensure that cities like New Haven have the ability to address the issues that we’re hearing so much more frequently now about systemic racism, the injustices of the economic disparities, and instead we are spending it on infrastructure to prepare for something that we could have avoided,” Elicker said.
Among the costs are a $164 million project, with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers, to build a wall to protect Interstate 95 and to install large gates on the underpasses to keep water from overtaking the low-lying land at Long Wharf.
Elicker also said a $40 million pump station is needed to drain stormwater from downtown during large storms, that a sand berm will be constructed to protect Morris Cove, and that a living shoreline will be created at Long Wharf and East Shore Park to protect against erosion and flooding.
State Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle Seagull said her department targets businesses that deceive consumers, but “today we’re talking about deception on a whole new level. The reality is climate change has had and will continue to have significant and long-term impacts on Connecticut and its consumers” because ExxonMobil “systematically sought to downplay that.”
Betsey Wingfield, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said climate change is causing species of sealife to move north, creating more intense rainstorms and more 90-degree days. “Sea level is expected to increase 20 inches by the year 2050,” she said. “It’s going to take tremendous investment in the infrastructure.”
Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel for Save the Sound, issued a statement Monday stating, “We commend Attorney General Tong for bringing this fact-based suit and continuing Connecticut’s leadership in holding companies accountable for the climate disruption resulting from their actions. Climate denial is not only unethical, it is illegal when you know the truth and are actively seeking to mislead consumers in order to sell your product. As a result of ExxonMobil’s continuing deceptions, we are experiencing increased storms and flooding, droughts, higher temperatures, wildfires, and poor air quality. ExxonMobil is not above the law and needs to be held accountable.”
ExxonMobil’s media relations department was asked for a comment on the suit.