The Minnesota lawsuit against Big Oil is about environmental protection — but also racial justice

Black and Indigenous people will feel the brunt of climate change

A march across the Lowry Avenue Bridge, protesting air pollution from the Northern Metal Recycling facility in north Minneapolis, Minnesota, on September 7, 2016.

Minnesotans place a high value on accountability. In the 1990s, we led the nation by taking Big Tobacco to court for lying about the harms caused by smoking. More recently, we’ve been at the forefront of demands to hold police accountable and change law enforcement systems that brutalize and kill Black people in Minnesota and across the nation. 

Now, thanks to a new lawsuit brought by Attorney General Keith Ellison, Minnesota is helping lead the charge to hold accountable another group of bad actors whose actions have caused irreparable harm to our state: the oil and gas industry. 

For decades, Big Oil companies like Exxon knew that their products caused “potentially catastrophic” global warming. But instead of helping transition to a clean energy future, the industry concocted what Ellison called a “campaign of deception” to lie to the public about climate science, protect their profits, and stall efforts to curb fossil fuel use. 

The attorney general cites decades of internal company memos and industry research, including the testimony of one former Exxon scientific consultant to Congress last year, who explained how advertisements Exxon ran raising doubts about climate change were contradicted by the company’s own scientific work. 

While these corporate polluters lied and got rich, Minnesotans paid the price from more damaging floods, heat waves, and storms that resulted from the changing climate. Like police abuse, these climate impacts are a racial justice issue because they fall hardest on Black and indigenous peoples and on other communities of color.

The attorney general is now suing Exxon and two other polluters who have spent tens of millions of dollars funding climate disinformation — Koch Industries, our state’s largest oil refiner, and the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas trade association — for misleading Minnesotans in violation of our state’s consumer protection laws. 

This lawsuit is crucial not only to holding Big Oil accountable for their lies, but also securing just compensation for the communities that have been hit the hardest. Here in Minnesota, it is our populations of color — particularly our urban Black population and our American Indian population whether urban or rural — that face the most grave health disparities and environmental harm from climate change. North Minneapolis, for example, has been cited by state authorities as one of our communities that is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Residents in that area face some of the highest rates of asthma in the state, a condition made worse by air pollution. 

When Minnesota settled the lawsuit against Phillip Morris for $6.5 billion, some of those funds were able to be reinvested in communities that were harmed. 

In the lawsuit against Exxon, Koch, and API, the state is asking the court to order the companies to give up all the profits they’ve made from their unlawful behavior, pay civil penalties and restitution “to remedy the great harm and injury” their conduct caused the people of Minnesota. They’d also have to fund a “corrective public education campaign” on climate change. 

If successful, a win for Minnesota in this case could mean new sources of funding not only for climate mitigation efforts — which are already costing state taxpayers millions — but the opportunity to rebuild infrastructure and re-invest directly in some of our most affected communities.

From renewable energy to public transportation, there are many ways Minnesotans must shift our priorities to avert a climate catastrophe for future generations. But it’s just as important that we hold accountable the companies whose lies about climate change created this crisis in the first place and added immensely to divides in racial wealth and wellbeing. It’s time to prioritize our freedom to breathe over these corporate polluters’ freedom to lie and destroy. 

Sam Grant will join 350.org founder Bill McKibben Tuesday at noon for a Facebook Live panel discussion titled Leading with Racial Justice in the Climate Movement.