'A resounding victory': Court rules Exxon must stand trial for lying to the public about climate change

'A resounding victory': Court rules Exxon must stand trial for lying to the public about climate change
New Brunswick, New Jersey - September 2, 2021: Cars submerged underwater and flooded gas station in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ida (Shutterstock).

The Massachusetts high court on Tuesday rejected ExxonMobil's attempt to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the state, meaning the biggest oil giant in the U.S. must stand trial for allegations that it lied to the public about the climate emergency and the fossil fuel industry's role in driving it.

The lawsuit filed in 2019 by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey accuses Exxon of violating the state's consumer protection laws through a decadeslong effort to conceal what it knew about the negative environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels.

In particular, the complaint says, Exxon deceived investors about the risks that global warming poses to its business and misled consumers by downplaying the dangerous effects of its products and overstating what the company is doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As The Guardian reported, "Exxon claimed the lawsuit was in breach of legislation against what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPS, used by wealthy individuals and corporations to silence critics."

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, however, ruled unanimously that the state's "anti-SLAPP" law is not applicable to government enforcement actions, affirming a lower court's decision to deny Exxon's special motion to dismiss the case.

"Once again, Exxon's attacks on my office and our case have been rejected by the courts," Healey said in a statement.

Tuesday's ruling, said the Massachusetts AG, "is a resounding victory in our work to stop Exxon from lying to investors and consumers in our state."

"Exxon's repeated attempts to stonewall our lawsuit have been baseless, and this effort was no different," added Healey. "We look forward to proceeding with our case and having our day in court to show how Exxon is breaking the law and to put an end to the deception once and for all."

During a congressional hearing in October, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods told lawmakers that the company's public statements on climate "are and have always been truthful" and that it has "long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change" and "devoted significant resources to addressing those risks."

In reality, however, Exxon is one of several fossil fuel corporations that have spent years spreading disinformation to delay climate action and prolong coal, oil, and gas extraction even as the consequences of doing so grow increasingly deadly.

To take just one example, several U.S. government scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were replaced or forced into retirement following an intervention by Exxon lobbyists in the early days of former President George W. Bush's administration, as detailed in Frontline's new three-part docuseries, "The Power of Big Oil."

The Massachusetts lawsuit states that Exxon undertook a "sophisticated, multi-million dollar campaign" to sow doubt about the links between fossil fuels and the climate crisis, which is "reminiscent of the tobacco industry's long denial campaign about the dangerous effects of cigarettes."

According to Healey's office, Exxon also engaged in greenwashing by marketing and selling its products as pollution-reducing and "falsely promoting itself as an environmentally responsible clean energy leader working to address climate change."

"Rather than honestly disclose and mitigate climate change risks," the lawsuit states, "ExxonMobil's misrepresentations about and failures to disclose those risks have delayed the needed transition to clean energy around the world and make these existential climate-driven threats to the global economy more likely to occur."

Since 2017, the AGs of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia as well as 20 city and county governments in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Washington have filed lawsuits to hold oil, gas, and coal companies accountable for lying to the public about how they are fueling the planetary emergency.

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