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'It's about Delaware surviving it': state AG sues fossil fuel companies over climate change

Eli Chen/Delaware Public Media

The State of Delaware is suing thirty fossil fuels companies and a trade association over the effects of climate change. 

The complaintfiled in state Superior Court Thursday claims the companies’ products caused or accelerated climate change, endangering thousands of Delaware residents, threatening the state’s agriculture sector and jeopardizing over a billion dollars in property value. The suit also claims the companies knew or should have known the dangers of their products, and have misled the public for decades.

Delaware State Attorney General Kathy Jennings said during a press briefing Thursday the lawsuit is about decades of deception by the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s about who will pay for the mounting financial, environmental and public health costs of the climate crisis,” she said. “It is not about stopping climate change. It’s about Delaware surviving it.”

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin said the state is already seeing the impacts of climate change. Delaware has the lowest average elevation of any state in the country.

“Delaware and our residents are suffering from sea level rise, increased temperatures, heavy precipitation and flooding due to climate change,” Garvin said during Thursday’s briefing. “It’s adversely affecting our public health, our environment and our economy. The science is clear, that these climate impacts are directly attributable to the products produced by fossil fuel companies.”

Fossil fuel companies have withstood several climate change suits. Last year New York lost a shareholder fraud lawsuit against Exxon Mobil in state court. And early this year a federal appeals court dismissed a high-profile suitbrought by children and teenagers claiming the U.S. government violated their constitutional rights by continuing to use fossil fuels, knowing that doing so puts future generations at risk.

State Attorney General Kathy Jennings called the New York verdict an “outlier.” She said Delaware’s suit more closely resembles ongoing litigation filed by other states, including Rhode Island, but emphasized it is specific to local impacts. 

“We were very conscious about fashioning this lawsuit as a traditional damages action,” said Jennings. “Who were the people who caused the damage, what did they know, what actions did they take or not take? And what damages are they responsible for?”

“That’s a traditional lawsuit that’s filed everyday in our state and elsewhere,” she added. “The only differences here are the damages are catastrophic, or existential.”

Delaware’s lawsuit claims negligent failure to warn, trespass, public nuisance and multiple violations of Delaware’s Consumer Fraud Act. It seeks monetary damages to compensate the state and punish the companies, including $10,000 per violation of the Consumer Fraud Act. The complaint argues the changes to Delaware's environment, a "direct and proximate consequence of Defendants’ wrongful conduct," disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities.

Defendants include the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for the oil and natural gas industry. A representative pushed back on Delaware’s claims Thursday.

“The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” American Petroleum Institute Chief Legal Officer and Senior Vice President Paul Afonso said in a statement. “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

Representatives from several of the fossil fuel companies named as defendants also disputed the state’s claims, saying the lawsuit is not a good way to achieve meaningful change on the issue.

Casey Norton, a spokesperson for Exxon Mobil Corporation, called the state’s claims “baseless and without merit.”

“Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” Norton said in an emailed statement Thursday. “ExxonMobil will continue to invest in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy.”

Chevron spokesperson Sean Comey also disputed the claims, and cast them as “not a serious solution to a serious problem.”


“These special-interest-promoted lawsuits designed to punish a few companies who lawfully deliver affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy undermine real efforts to address the complex policy issues presented by global climate change,” Comey said in an email. 


Shell spokesperson Anna Arata said her company agrees action on climate change is needed. 


“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 said in a statement. “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.”


Arata said Shell believes the courtroom is not the right venue to address climate change, and that change needs to come through “smart policy from government” supported by business sectors including the fossil fuel industry. 

Delaware’s lawsuit claims the defendants continue to mislead the public about the impact of their fossil fuel products on climate change through “greenwashing campaigns” in the First State and elsewhere. 

“Fossil Fuel Defendants have falsely ?claimed through advertising campaigns ... that their businesses are substantially invested in lower?carbon technologies and renewable energy sources,” the complaint reads. “In truth, each Fossil Fuel Defendant has invested minimally in renewable energy while continuing to expand its fossil fuel production … None of Fossil Fuel Defendants’ fossil fuel products are “green” or “clean” because they all continue to ultimately warm the planet.”


This story has been updated.


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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