When Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced lawsuits against fossil fuel companies in 2020, the moment was ripe. Reports on elevated greenhouse-gas emissions were stark, demonstrating both a warming planet and causal evidence that fossil fuels were a lead culprit.
The lawsuit led by Ellison’s office aims to hold accountable “companies responsible for harms associated with climate change,” as his office stated. It accused firms such as ExxonMobil, American Petroleum Institute, and Koch Industries of “consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, misrepresentation, (and a) failure to warn.” The main premise of the suit seems to be that, by producing oil products and not being more forthcoming on climate impact, or downplaying them, these firms greatly misled consumers.
There is no question that fossil fuels contribute to climate change, and the firms that both produce and distribute those fuels have some culpability.
But considering the global energy crisis that has led to international battles on oil supplies and increased energy costs, are lawsuits the right course of action? Are we, as consumers of these products and also citizens of this planet, victims? If we are victims, then we also happen to be the ones perpetuating harm.
To whom does ExxonMobil or any other oil company sell its products? It’s us, consumers and entrepreneurs. We fill up our cars, SUVs, tractors, and lawnmowers with gasoline. We power our industries, heat our homes, and use fossil-fuel energy in the course of our everyday lives to improve our standard of living. This is especially true in a harsh-winter state like Minnesota.
There are questions about shifting the sources of that energy and how we can move to cleaner and renewable processes and outputs, whether that be nuclear energy or solar and wind.
At least one Minnesota start-up is harnessing geothermal energy to both heat and cool homes — but has been stalled by an unclear regulatory environment. In that case, shouldn’t the focus of regulators and public officials be on addressing the “how” of an energy transition rather than solely addressing the “who” of the energy status quo?
Using civil courts and lawsuits to address that energy question is a targeted approach with an intended outcome that has little to do with energy innovation. Rather, these lawsuits seek financial settlements from oil and gas companies. Every climate-change lawsuit filed by Minnesota’s attorney general, or dozens of other state attorneys general, has a goal of extracting money from energy firms.
This will have no bearing on future investments in energy production, renewable or not, and could logically lead to higher energy costs for consumers if firms are required to settle or pay large sums to both lawyers and states that pursue them.
Climate action via courts is not novel. There are entire university law departments predicated on the idea of suing, pursuing, or otherwise holding energy companies liable for some aspects of climate change. There are grants available from organizations such as the Collective Action Fund for Accountability to public officials with attorney privileges who commit to such lawsuits.
Tort law firms such as Arnold and Porter have staked their reputation on lawsuits against energy providers, creating a mounting war chest that will likely leave oil and gas producers with higher attorney fees than investments in renewables or alternative sources of energy. Not to mention higher costs passed on to consumers.
Whatever one’s view on how best to adapt or overcome climate change, the practice of litigating the science in a court of law is a poor strategy. This will not empower nor inspire the next generation of energy entrepreneurs to provide better solutions. There will be more rich lawyers, more clogged courtrooms, and fewer resources available to energy firms that do seek to pivot to better alternatives.
If consumers want an alternative-energy future, shouldn’t we dedicate resources and create the environment for that innovation to occur? Or should we forever cast its fate into the hands of lawyers and judges and those cashing the checks? I would rather choose innovation and creativity over this litigious status quo.
Yaël Ossowski is a writer, an economic journalist, and deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center (consumerchoicecenter.org), a global consumer-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.