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October 19, 2022

N.J. sues oil companies for concealing information about impact of fossil fuels on climate crisis

Six other states, including Delaware, Connecticut and Vermont, have filed similar complaints in recent years

New Jersey is the latest state to take legal action against the fossil fuel industry for its role in perpetuating the climate crisis, as the Attorney General's Office filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging some companies knowingly deceived the public about environmental risks associated with the use of oil and gas.

The suit names five companies as defendants — Exxon Mobil, Shell Oil, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips — as well as the American Petroleum Institute, the top U.S. trade group in the fossil fuel industry. The state is seeking to hold the companies accountable for concealing information about the impacts that fossil fuel consumption has on the climate.

In particular, New Jersey's complaint points to increased sea level rise, flooding, and other extreme weather that has impacted state residents and businesses and has required the government to utilize resources to rebuild after disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Ida. 

"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 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." 

The lawsuit claims that these companies — as well as API — have known for decades that the use of fossil fuels could have devastating impacts on climate, and that concealing that information delayed a national transition to a lower carbon future and increased dependance on their products. 

API is accused of orchestrating climate change denial campaigns as far back at the 1980s on behalf of the other fossil fuel companies named in the lawsuit. The state hopes to place the responsibility of remedying the impacts of climate change on these companies, rather than placing the impetus on individual states to use their resources to rebuild following climate disasters and severe weather. 

"New Jersey is ground zero for some of the worst impacts of climate change," said Shawn M. LaTourette, commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental Protection. "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." 

A 2021 study in Nature found that more than $8 billion in damages caused by Hurricane Sandy across New Jersey, New York and Connecticut can be attributed to sea level rise. 

Cari Fais, acting director of the Department of Community Affairs, said that vulnerable communities throughout the state and along the Jersey Shore are subjected to "increasingly frequent bouts of significant flooding" as a result of extreme weather conditions becoming more common. Some of the flooding can have fatal consequences. 

"Addressing a challenge as big as climate change requires a truly collaborative, society-wide approach," Anna Arata, a spokesperson for Shell, said in a statement. "We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government, supported by action from all business sectors, including ours, and from civil society, is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress." 

Representatives from BP and Exxon Mobil did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday about the lawsuit. Officials from ConocoPhillips said that their company policy is not to comment on active litigation.

"Today’s filing is a distraction from the serious problem of global climate change, not an attempt to find a real solution," Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., legal counsel for Chevron, said in a statement. "These suits serve only to divert attention and resources away from the collaborative, international efforts that are critical to developing a meaningful solution to climate change. Chevron believes that the claims asserted are legally and factually meritless, and will demonstrate that in court. In the meantime, Chevron will continue working with other stakeholders in the public and private sectors to craft real solutions to global climate change."

Casey Norton, a spokesperson for Exxon Mobil, told that the legal proceeding was like others that "waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change." 

The state is also seeking monetary penalties and damages, including natural resource damages from the loss of wetlands throughout New Jersey.

The lawsuit claims that taxpayers will bear the cost burden of protecting communities from rising sea levels and other climate-related harms to the environment, which state officials say should be the responsibility of the fossil fuel companies themselves. 

The state joins the ranks of Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. in its efforts to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for the effects of climate change, which New Jersey's lawsuit says has had a "disastrous" impact on the state. 

In 2020, Delaware filed a sweeping lawsuit seeking to hold Exxon, the API, and 29 other fossil fuel companies accountable for the costs associated with climate change. Similar to New Jersey's lawsuit, Delaware's complaint alleged a decades-long campaign of deception against the public regarding the impacts of fossil fuels on the climate crisis. 

In August, a federal appeals court ruled that Delaware's lawsuit must be heard in state court instead of federal court. While the state government sought to have the suits heard in state courts, the Associated Press reported that oil companies wanted them to be heard in federal court, arguing that the allegations involved federal issues and that the companies were acting under federal officers in drilling for oil.  

In 2015, 21 youth plaintiffs and organizational plaintiff Earth Guardians filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the U.S. government. Juliana v. United States alleges that the government's actions that affirm climate change have violated the youngest generation's constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. 

Over the last seven years, the lawsuit had made its way through the court system, with oil companies joining the government as defendants before being released ahead of an initial trial in 2017. After out-of-court settlement negotiations ended without an agreement in November 2021, the plaintiffs are waiting approval on an amended legal complaint against the U.S. government. 

Information about the ongoing legal proceedings are available from Our Children's Trust, a nonprofit law firm providing legal services to the plaintiffs.