Michael Rockhold: Like tobacco, Big Oil should be subject to state laws

Pine Bend Oil Refinery - Flint Hills Resources - Rosemount, Minn
The Pine Bend oil refinery in Rosemount, Minnesota, run by Flint Hills Resources, a subsidiary of Koch Industries.
Contributed / Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, under Creative Commons license
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“Who told you the earth was warming — Chicken Little?”

This is the tagline from an infamous oil industry ad from 1991, one of many in a multi-decade barrage of disinformation tactics. These types of ads were designed to cast doubt on science that demonstrated the catastrophic effects of burning fossil fuel industry products — science that had already been internally socialized and buried by oil industry giants as early as the 1950s.

Perhaps now, finally, Chicken Little is coming home to roost.

It has been nearly two years since Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit against three oil industry giants, asserting claims based on state law that prohibit consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, and false advertising statements.

On March 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit will hear oral arguments to determine whether Minnesota vs. American Petroleum Institute (API), ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries will proceed in state court, where it was filed and where a federal district judge recently agreed it should remain.


The fossil fuel groups have fought to escape accountability by arguing that Minnesota’s lawsuit should instead be heard in federal court, which the polluters hope will be friendlier toward their case. But District Court Judge John Tunheim rejected their arguments, called their attacks on Minnesota’s case a “caricature,” and referred to the state’s case as a “well-pleaded consumer protection action.” The oil companies appealed the decision to the 8th Circuit and the case has been put on hold while the appeal is pending.

In similar cases across the U.S. — in Maryland, Hawaii, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California — federal courts have agreed that state court is the proper venue for cases seeking to hold polluters accountable. Most recently, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a similar ruling, rejecting a series of arguments that Exxon made to move a climate accountability lawsuit from several Colorado communities to federal court.

Oil companies are trying to change the narrative around these cases, which seek to hold them accountable for spreading lies about their products and climate change, in order to divert attention from their lawbreaking tactics and deceptive trade practices. Their arguments for moving the cases to federal court rest on mischaracterizing these cases to be about regulating emissions rather than their own corruption.

In its legal arguments, and in today’s political environment, Big Oil is maneuvering to position the climate crisis as simply another divisive political issue subject to congressional gridlock, just another stalemate in an intractable culture war.

Make no mistake. Minnesota’s case against these oil giants is about fraud and violating our state’s strong consumer protection laws and, for those reasons, belongs in our state court. Without diminishing the need for lawmakers to create and enforce carbon emission regulations, in this lawsuit and many other similar cases that have followed, the focus is squarely on the decades of corporate malfeasance in the oil industry.

When you create a product that you learn is catastrophically dangerous and has safer alternatives, and the danger of your product has been verified by well-established science — science that your own researchers have surfaced themselves and agree with — and you cover it up and deceive the public about the dangers of your product, you have committed a punishable crime subject to significant retributions, just as Big Tobacco did for decades and was punished accordingly.

Nearly synchronous with the upcoming circuit court hearing, the Minnesota House Climate Action Caucus recently released a bold, $1.1 billion Climate Action Plan for Minnesota and proposed funding it from the projected $9.25 billion state budget surplus. This ambitious plan aims to protect the environment, our health, and create jobs and cut energy costs for all Minnesotans. Not only does it provide much needed investment in renewable energy and transportation infrastructure, it also invests significantly in adaptation and resilience strategies from current and projected future damage from climate change.

The Climate Action Plan and its significant, but necessary, price tag also beg an important question about accountability. Why should the government and taxpayers be forced to pay for environmental resilience and recovery from decades of deception driven solely by oil industry greed? Similar questions were asked decades ago about the tobacco industry, and justice prevailed.


In 1998, Minnesota led the way with the first state lawsuit ever to go to trial against Big Tobacco. It resulted in $6.5 billion being awarded to the state of Minnesota and Blue Cross Blue Shield and eventually in a $206 billion nationwide settlement against the tobacco industry. It exposed Big Tobacco’s long history of deceptive marketing, advertising, and research and ultimately forced the industry to change its business practices.

Now it’s Big Oil’s turn. Minnesota deserves its day in state court.

Michael Rockhold of Long Lake is a climate activist, IT executive and volunteer with the statewide climate justice group MN350.

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