New Jersey sues five oil companies, alleging decades of ‘concealment’ and ‘public deception’ on climate change

The New Jersey legal campaign, like the others, seeks compensation from the oil industry for the large and growing destructive cost of the worsening climate crisis.  

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Image Credit: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

The state of New Jersey filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against five oil companies and the oil industry’s most powerful lobbying group for covering up and misleading the public about climate change, the latest round of state and municipal-led climate litigation seeking accountability from the oil industry.

The lawsuit, filed in the New Jersey Superior Court, states that the companies knew about climate change for decades and actively sought to conceal that information from the public. Instead, they funded PR campaigns aimed at confusing and misleading the public.

The oil companies “concealed and misrepresented the dangers of fossil fuels; disseminated false and misleading information about the existence, causes, and effects of climate change; and aggressively promoted the ever-increasing use of their products at ever-greater volumes,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit names ExxonMobil, Shell Oil Company, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, and the American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group in which the five oil companies were members.

The case comes just ahead of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New Jersey and other parts of the eastern seaboard, and the storm “previews the grave climate-related consequences New Jersey faces as a direct result of Defendants’ tortious deception,” the lawsuit argues.

A yellow two story house with the lower left side missing, on a beach at sunset
A home on the New Jersey coast destroyed by Superstorm Sandy’s surge, which damaged over 200 homes in Union Beach alone. Credit: Julie Dermansky ©2012

As it happens, nearly 25 years ago, Shell predicted with remarkable accuracy the events that would broadly unfold. In a 1998 internal document that laid out future climate scenarios, Shell described a hypothetical catastrophic storm that would ravage the U.S. East Coast in 2010 — one that sounds unmistakably like Hurricane Sandy — which sets off a society-wide backlash that would engulf the oil industry. The result would be a legal and policy reckoning. From Shell’s 1998 forecast:

“Following the storms, a coalition of environmental NGOs brings a class-action suit against the US government and fossil-fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done. A social reaction to the use of fossil fuels grows, and individuals become ‘vigilante environmentalists’ in the same way, a generation earlier, they had become fiercely anti-tobacco. Direct-action campaigns against companies escalate. Young consumers, especially, demand action.”

Today, a long list of major climate accountability cases are proceeding in state courts, each with extensive documented evidence demonstrating that the oil industry, including Shell, covered up internal climate science and instead chose to fund climate denial and greenwashing campaigns.

“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,” New Jersey Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin said in a statement. “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.”

Shell knew about the risks and reality of climate change at least as far back as the 1980s. A 1988 internal Shell document called “The Greenhouse Effect,” detailed Shell’s knowledge that climate change was real, that fossil fuels were a principal cause, and that 1.5 to 3.5 degrees Celsius warming was possible. The document also warned that society could turn against fossil fuels if they learned about how serious the threat was.

The New Jersey legal campaign, like the others, seeks compensation from the oil industry for the large and growing destructive cost of the worsening climate crisis.  

“The lawsuit by New Jersey adds to growing momentum to hold Big Oil accountable for its decades of deception and harm,” Kathy Mulvey, the accountability campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “As the tobacco control movement has demonstrated, litigation is a powerful tool that can and should be used to hold bad actors accountable and protect people and the planet over profit.”

In response to questions from DeSmog, Anna Arata, a spokesperson for Shell, stated: “The Shell Group’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades. We agree that action is needed now on climate change, we fully support the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future and we’re committed to playing our part by addressing our own emissions and helping customers to reduce theirs.”

Arata went on: “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.”

But Shell’s misdirection continues through to the present. The company, like its peers, heavily advertises its clean transition plans and investments in renewable energy, but analysts say Shell is expected to spend four times as much on oil and gas development compared to renewables. Indeed, despite the glossy ads and rhetoric, Shell’s plans to grow oil and gas production in the years ahead mean that it is on track to produce more greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 than it does today.

And as DeSmog reported last month, Shell is acutely aware of how its communications on the energy transition can open it up to further litigation, warning employees in internal emails and presentations not to confuse the oil major’s net-zero talk with the company’s actual business plan.

“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,” New Jersey Attorney General Platkin said.

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