The state attorney general’s office announced Thursday it is suing ExxonMobil Corp. for allegedly deceiving the state’s consumers about the role the company’s products play in climate change and misleading investors about the potential financial risks to the company.
“Exxon has known for decades about the catastrophic climate impacts of burning fossil fuels — its chief product,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. “Yet to this day, Exxon continues to deceive Massachusetts consumers and investors about the dangerous climate harms caused by its oil and gasoline products and the significant risks of climate change — and efforts to address it — to Exxon’s business. We are suing to stop this illegal deception and penalize the company for its misconduct.”
The civil complaint, which alleged violations of the state’s consumer and investor protection laws and related regulations, was filed Thursday in Suffolk Superior Court.
In a statement, ExxonMobil called the lawsuit “baseless.”
“The Massachusetts attorney general’s office has filed a baseless complaint three years after announcing its politically motivated investigation, during which they have not interviewed a single ExxonMobil employee or gathered one piece of evidence from the company,” said Scott J. Silvestri, a company spokesman. “We look forward to refuting the meritless allegations in court.”
The state’s lawsuit follows similar suits against the oil giant filed by prosecutors in New York and Rhode Island, as well as several cities, including Baltimore, Oakland, New York, and Boulder, Colo. It’s the first claim alleging that the company’s advertising and other representations harmed consumers, Healey said.
In a conference call with reporters, Healey said she decided to file the lawsuit after years of investigating the company because her staff had reached a point when they felt “comfortable” moving forward. She said the company has refused to provide the state with any requested documents or make any company employees available for interviews.
She declined to say how much the state is seeking in damages but said it “adds up to untold amounts,” noting there are some 300 Exxon-branded gas stations in Massachusetts.
Damages could be calculated, in part, by total gas sales in the state, she said. But she said her main goal was “stopping the company from engaging in deceptive and misleading practices.”
Healey had been investigating whether ExxonMobil covered up its knowledge about the role its products have played in warming the planet and lied to the public.
Healey, along with the attorney general of New York, launched probes into ExxonMobil after news reports in 2015 suggested the company had encouraged climate-change confusion for years after its own scientists knew about the dangers of burning fossil fuels.
As early as 1982, she said, the company’s scientists predicted the precise amount of carbon dioxide that would be in the atmosphere in 2019, which has reached as much as 415 parts per million, the highest level in human history. That surge in heat-trapping gas has been attributed to the increasing use of fossil fuels.
In internal documents, one of the company’s scientists described the consequences of climate change as “catastrophic,” she said.
ExxonMobil officials also recognized decades ago that reducing emissions would require “sharply curtailing the use of fossil fuels,” she said.
Healey also alleged the company has hidden from investors its own knowledge of the risk climate change has posed to the global economy and its fossil fuel business.
Citing internal documents from 1980, the complaint alleged that an expert retained by ExxonMobil presented findings that the projected rise in global temperatures from using fossil fuels would have “major economic consequences” and “bring world economic growth to a halt.”
The complaint also alleged that the company illegally misrepresented to its investors that it had factored the cost of complying with carbon regulations into its financial planning and investment decisions, when internal documents show that it had not, Healey said.
“This deception misled Massachusetts investors by inflating the value of the company’s portfolio of oil and gas projects around the world,” she said.
The company has also misled state drivers by advertising that its gas and diesel products, sold under the name “Synergy,” and its “green” Mobil 1 oil products, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the complaint alleged.
Such advertising violates state law through a deceptive “greenwashing” marketing campaign, when the company actually spent less than 1 percent of its revenues on developing clean energy, Healey said.
In March 2016, Healey issued a “civil investigative demand” seeking information under state consumer protection law, arguing ExxonMobil may have deceived Massachusetts consumers and investors. In response, the company sued Healey in federal and state courts.
In January 2017, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Heidi Brieger dismissed the lawsuit and ordered the company to comply with Healey’s order. In March 2018, a federal district court judge in New York also dismissed ExxonMobil’s federal lawsuit.
In April 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismissed a bid by ExxonMobil to stop Healey from investigating. Healey said at the time ExxonMobil should “come forward with the truth.”