Attorney General TJ Donovan announces lawsuit against oil giants

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan discusses a lawsuit his office has filed against four major fossil fuel producers at a press conference in Burlington on Sept. 14, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan announced Tuesday the state has filed a lawsuit against the four largest suppliers of fossil fuels in Vermont, arguing the companies have misled consumers about their products’ contribution to climate change.

The state is seeking to force the companies to include stickers or labels at gas pumps warning Vermonters about the products’ impact on the environment, in addition to fines and other measures.

“Here’s the thing: We’re not saying, ‘Don’t sell your product in Vermont.’ We’re not saying, ‘Vermonters, don’t drive,’” Donovan said at a press conference outside Chittenden County Superior Court in Burlington. “We are simply saying that Vermonters have the right to know.”

The consumer protection suit claims that Exxon, Shell, Sunoco and CITGO have made “past and ongoing violations” of Vermont’s Consumer Protection Act via “numerous deceptive acts and unfair practices in connection with their marketing, distribution, and sale of gasoline and other fossil fuel products” in the state.

The state alleges that these companies have done so in three ways: through historical knowledge that their products contribute to climate change, by releasing false advertisements that downplay their products’ impact on the environment and by “greenwashing” campaigns that suggest they are helping address the problem. 

The lawsuit calls for “disclosure at the point of sale,” which could take the form of the stickers or labels at gas pumps, said Peter McDougall, chief of the Environmental Protection Division in the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.

“While the products are legal, they are not innocuous,” Assistant Attorney General Justin Kolber said. “This is no different than any other countless consumer products that carry disclosures with them.”

Attorney General TJ Donovan announces lawsuit against oil giants
The lawsuit alleges the companies misrepresented their knowledge about the effects of petroleum products on climate change. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Both Kolber and Donovan compared the proposed warnings at gas pumps to those found on tobacco products or the calorie counts listed on fast-food menus.

This is not an environmental case, which would typically focus on seeking damages to restore a ruined environment, but it is rather about the companies telling the truth, Assistant Attorney General Laura Murphy said.

“It’s a consumer protection case and in any consumer protection case there is going to be underlying subject matter. In this case the underlying subject matter is the climate. It is the impacts that the defendants’ fossil fuel products have on the climate,” Murphy said.

In addition to disclosure at gas pumps, the lawsuit calls for each of the four companies to stop and correct misrepresentation, relinquish all profits from misleading advertisements, reimburse the state’s investigative and litigation costs, and pay civil penalties up to $10,000 per violation of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act.

“This has been going on since 1959, and it’s about time that Vermont consumers have the correct information to make an informed decision,” Donovan said. “We’re not telling people what decision to make. We’re simply saying, release the facts; let people decide.”

Messages sent on Tuesday afternoon to representatives for Exxon, Shell and Sunoco were not immediately returned. A CITGO spokesperson said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit was denounced by Manufacturers’ Accountability Project, a trade group that tracks lawsuits targeting manufacturing companies, especially those seeking damages for climate change. About 20 “climate change litigation” lawsuits claiming consumer protection or public nuisance violations have been filed in states and cities across the country, according to the organization’s case tracker. 

Phil Goldberg, special counsel for the organization, said in a news release that Vermont’s lawsuit “does nothing to advance meaningful solutions to climate change.”

“We encourage Vermont and every state to focus on working with manufacturers to foster the policies and innovations required to address this global challenge — as the overwhelming majority of communities have done,” Goldberg said in the release.

Attorney General TJ Donovan announces lawsuit against oil giants
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan discusses a lawsuit his office has filed against four major fossil fuel producers. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Donovan, meanwhile, said he expects this to be a “vigorous” fight in court that will “take some time.”

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants have known their fossil fuels have contributed to climate change since the 1960s. The complaint cites internal reports conducted on behalf of the defendants, such as one from Shell in 1988 that said fossil fuels are “the primary driver of climate change,” and by the time global warming is detected, “it could be too late to reduce the effects.”

Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, the companies used false advertising to downplay the impact. At the press conference, Kolber shared a 1988 internal memo from Exxon that said the company should “emphasize uncertainty around climate science and turn it into a debate,” which was followed by such advertisements in the 1990s.

The lawsuit also goes after a practice known as “greenwashing,” where companies portray themselves as helping the environment despite harmful practices. 

“They realize public perception is changing and they want to portray themselves as somehow helping the environment when in fact they know their fossil fuel products are still the leading contributor to climate change and they continue to omit that critical fact,” Kolber said.

Attorney General TJ Donovan announces lawsuit against oil giants
The state accuses Exxon, Shell, Sunoco and CITGO of misleading Vermonters about their products’ effect on climate change. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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