Jersey City — New Jersey officials announced a lawsuit Tuesday against five oil and gas companies and a petroleum trade organization, alleging they had known for decades about the harmful impact of fossil fuels on climate change but instead deceived the public about that link. Attorney General Matthew Platkin and the state’s consumer affairs division and environmental protection department said the suit filed Tuesday in Superior Court in Mercer County names Exxon Mobil Corp., Shell Oil Co. Chevron Corp., BP, ConocoPhillips, and the American Petroleum Institute trade group of which all are members.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants failed to warn the public about the role of fossil fuels in climate change and instead “launched public-relations campaigns to sow doubts about the existence, causes, and effects of climate change.”
“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,” Platkin said in a statement. “They went to great lengths to hide the truth and mislead the people of New Jersey, and the world.”
With the lawsuit, New Jersey has joined more than two dozen other U.S. cities, counties and states trying to claim compensation from big oil and gas companies for their alleged roles in climate change-related environmental damage.
As CBS News’ Ben Tracy reported in April, the lawsuits are largely modeled after the “Big Tobacco” cases of the 1990s, which eventually saw cigarette makers agreed to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to compensate states for the costs of tobacco-related illnesses, and to curb their marketing to young people.
Shawn LaTourette, New Jersey’s environmental protection commissioner, called the state “ground zero” for some of the worst impacts of climate change. The commissioner added that the Garden State’s communities and environment “are continually recovering from extreme heat, furious storms, and devastating floods.”
The suit comes shortly before the 10th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated large parts of New Jersey and New York City. The announcement of the suit was made at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, which was inundated by floodwater from the storm.
The suit seeks civil penalties and damages, including for damage to natural resources such as wetlands, alleging that taxpayers will have to pay billions of dollars to protect communities from rising sea levels, deadlier storms, and other harmful effects and arguing that those costs should be paid by the defendants.
The Shell Group said in a statement that its position on climate change “has been a matter of public record for decades” and the company agreed action was needed and it was playing its part “by addressing our own emissions and helping customers to reduce theirs.”
“As the energy system evolves, so will our business, to provide the mix of products that our customers need and extend the economic and social benefits of energy access to everyone,” the company said. Shell said, however, that “a truly collaborative, society-wide approach” was required and the courtroom was not “the right venue.” Instead, the company said, “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.”
Exxon Mobil spokesperson Casey Norton said such legal proceedings “waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change.” Norton said the company would “continue to invest in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy.”
Chevron called the legal action “a distraction from the serious problem of global climate change, not an attempt to find a real solution.” A representative called it an attempt “to punish a select group of energy companies for a problem that is the result of worldwide conduct stretching back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.” The company called the claims asserted “legally and factually meritless” and vowed “to demonstrate that in court” while continuing to work the public and private sectors “to craft real solutions to global climate change.”
Representatives of BP and ConocoPhillips declined comment. A message seeking comment for this story was also sent to the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project trade organization, an attorney for which told CBS News in April that “fighting climate change requires policymaking, not lawsuits.”
“This is not an issue of who knew what or when, or who said what and when,” said the attorney, Phil Goldberg. “The federal government has had the very same information that they’re saying that the energy companies had going back to the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s. The question is, what we’re gonna do about it today?”
Richard Lazarus, an environmental law professor at Harvard, told CBS News that while U.S. states and cities have been “left with the problem” caused by the federal government’s failure to pass laws protecting the environment, the legal battle for accountability would likely need to coalesce, and even then, it could be an uphill battle.
“The scope of the problem is one that requires, really, a national approach,” he told Tracy in April. “The challenge will be causation – to prove that their [fossil fuel companies] fraudulent behavior is what prevented the United States from passing the laws we needed to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions.”