Fossil Fuel Giants Sued by Puerto Rican Cities in Climate Racketeering Case

ON 12/31/2022 AT 12:00 PM

16 cities and towns in Puerto Rico have sued the biggest names in the fossil fuel industry for causing climate change and lying about it.

Puerto Rico's power grid, here shown the morning after Hurricane Maria blew through the island in September 2017, was virtually destroyed by the storm. The damage unfortunately set the stage for a conspiracy of corrupt government officials and private industry to defraud taxpayers and Puerto Rican citizens alike. Photo: Roosevelt Skerritt, CC

The difference in this lawsuit from others against the industry filed is that it is charging that the oil companies, their public relations partners, industry associations, and paid scientific spokespersons engaged for many years in a racketeering operation. Per the legal filing, that operation was architected to deceive the public about the fossil fuel enterprises’ full knowledge of their role in causing the climate crisis via the burning of their oil and gas products.

The suit was filed on November 22 in the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico and now with lawyers from the plaintiffs are going more public about the case.

The plaintiffs in the case are the Puerto Rico municipalities of Bayamón, Caguas, Loíza, Lares, Barranquitas, Comerío, Cayey, Las Marías, Trujillo Alto, Vega Baja, Añasco, Cidra, Aguadillo, Aibonito, Morovis, and Moca, known collectively for the purposes of the class action as the Municipalities of Puerto Rico. That proposed group class could eventually span every city and town within the island.

The defendants are Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Motiva Enterprises, Occidental Petroleum, Anadarko Petroleum, BHP, Arch Resources (a coal company), Rio Tinto, Peabody Energy, plus 100 other corporations and an additional unnamed group of 100 individuals.

They are being sued for “the primary role that the Defendants’ production, promotion, refining, marketing, and sale of fossil fuel-based consumer products played in causing the losses, deaths and destruction of property resulting from the catastrophic storms of September 2017 and their aftermath”, and “for the losses and economic damages the Defendants’ acts continue to cause, accelerate, and contribute to the deleterious alteration of Puerto Rico’s climate, thereby damaging the Municipalities of Puerto Rico, and damaging the health, safety, and welfare of the people who reside in the Municipalities”.

The suit is seeking damages based on the defendants’ continued misrepresentation of the dangers posed by their products, which “they marketed and sold despite their early awareness of the devastation they would cause Puerto Rico”. It goes on to explain that for decades the oil companies had conducted their own research proving the direct cause and effect between their fossil fuels and the climate crisis which is causing temperatures on the planet, including super-heating the oceans which in turn have given rise to increasingly more powerful hurricanes reaching Puerto Rico.

The case goes on to declare that the oil companies systematically engaged in “a campaign of climate change denial and obfuscation of the ominous threat of storms to Puerto Rico”. Those companies also leveraged that campaign to “maintain their economic monopoly” and “thwart alternative energy development”, all the while they used the same information to implement plans to protect their own offshore drilling rigs and more.

The suit then goes on to detail the destruction caused to Puerto Rico’s people during the 2017 hurricane season. The shredding of buildings, damage to infrastructure, mass flooding, obliteration of agricultural land, injuries, deaths, and even the harm to important nearby coral reefs are presented.

It proceeds further by demonstrating proof that the climate damage suffered in 2017 was far more severe than it would ever have been without the existence of the fossil fuel industry. It follows up with examples of that same industry working to hide its complicity in causing that damage.

While all this comes across so far as a mostly typical though well-organized lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry, what is different about this one is that it is the first in history to charge that the defendants collectively engaged in a conspiracy of deceit and corruption as defined in the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

That law was originally passed to provide a more serious level of prosecution possible against the mafia and other criminal enterprises. It has evolved since to address conspiracies — the act of working together to break the law — in all sorts of civil actions. In recent years the statute has been used to prosecute manufacturers and distributors collectively in the opioid crisis, against automobile manufacturers for colluding to maintain high levels of automobile emissions, and involving the e-cigarette industry as it represented its products as safe while hiding its addictive nature and ties to tongue, mouth, throat, and lung cancer.

In the list of “causes of action” the Municipalities of Puerto Rico charge against the fossil fuel providers and their associates, the first three listed cover charges common in more traditional lawsuits, including consumer fraud, conspiracy to commit consumer fraud, and the use of “misleading practices and advertisements” by the companies. In causes four, five and six, the RICO statute is called out.

The lawyers who constructed the plaintiffs’ case leaned on three separate industry alliances as proof of the conspiracy between the defendants.

The first cited in the case, the Global Climate Coalition, or GCC, was formed in 1989 as an advocacy group representing the fossil fuel industry. It came into being only a year after NASA climatologist James Hansen delivered his historic presentation to Congress delineating the relationship between increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel burning, and steadily rising planetary temperatures.  According to the GCC’s website, its purported mission was “to coordinate business participation in the international policy debate on the issue of global climate change and global warming," Its real reason for existence was to counter what at the time was a rising tide of calls to regulate the fossil fuel industry and the emissions released by all who used them. It did so between its founding and eventual shutdown in favor of other approaches in 2001. During that time, however, it spent many millions of dollars on falsified scientific research claims and an extensive public relations campaign aimed at sowing doubt in the United States over whether there was a climate crisis at all, and whether carbon emissions actually contributing to global heating. This was despite hard scientific proof of those claims having been available for over 150 years, with much of the proof of the link between emissions and temperature rise in the last fifty years having been conducted and funded by the oil and gas companies themselves.

A large percentage of Americans have chosen to belief the industry's lies.

The GCC counted among its members oil companies such as Occidental Petroleum, ARCO, Shell, Texaco, and Phillips Petroleum; lobbyist entities such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Gas Association; and highly-interested industry partners such as Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and the Automobile Importers of America.

The advertising campaigns the GCC orchestrated included the famous one which compared those who believe the climate crisis is real to those who thought hundreds of years ago that the Earth was flat. The GCC even produced a video entitled “The Greening of Planet Earth”, produced in coordination with the GCC membership and countries from OPEC, that claimed higher carbon emissions caused crops to produce higher yields and might solve world hunger.

A second example the lawyers in the Puerto Rico case cited for proof of RICO conspiracy was in creation of the “Global Climate Science Communication Team (GCSCT) Action Plan”. Authored by Joe Walker of the American Petroleum Institute, it provided a roadmap for the oil companies and their associates to follow, by creating a fog of deceit about the climate crisis via the publication of misleading scientific research articles and public relations promotions. The GCSCT was a task force formed by the GCC and others to continue to confuse the public and keep restrictive emission regulations which the U.S. Congress might consider at bay.

A third entity cited as evidence of the conspiracy was the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an industry pressure group which creates draft litigation for Congress and the States, as a means of promoting specific causes. Despite its theoretically independent NGO status, it has included within its membership almost one-fourth of all state legislators, who are subsidized by the organization’s members to take the legislative drafts it puts forth back to their states to become law. ALEC is listed in the GCSCT Action Plan as a fund “allocator” for the work of the Action Plan. As such it has carried out multiple missions for the GCSCT, including, according to the current lawsuit, crafting of “a state model bill to oppose the Kyoto Protocol”.

The Kyoto Protocol was a United Nations-led agreement signed in 1992 by nations around the world, which certified concurrence that global warming was real and that human-created carbon emissions were the primary cause of it.

The lawyers for the Puerto Rico communities maintain that information provided by entities such as the GCC and its partners at the oil companies and NGOs such as the American Petroleum Institute, which conducted their work with funding from the fossil fuel companies, misled the municipalities involved as to the dangers of the climate crisis. Those municipalities invested in infrastructure, encouraged companies to move there, and put off climate-resilient investments to adapt to the climate crisis and its many repercussions, all because of the propaganda the defendants were putting out.

In summarizing the current litigation, Senior Counsel for Milberg, the plaintiffs’ law firm, pointed out the extraordinary significance of this lawsuit even amidst the presence of many others seemingly like it.

“Puerto Rico is one of the most affected places by climate change in the world,” she said in a public statement recently. “It is so precariously positioned – they get hit on all fronts with hurricanes, storm surge, heat, coral bleaching – it’s the perfect place for this climate litigation.”

“What’s different about this [Rico] case,” she continued, "is that we have their enterprise in writing — the decision by rival companies, their front groups, scientists and associations to act together to change public opinion regarding the use of their consumer products by telling people something that they knew was not true.”

Now, the case just has to get in front of an honest judge who won't dismiss it.

Whether the case is won or lost, adding the concept of a vast conspiracy among the oil companies and their associates, plus the use of the RICO statute as an enforcement tool, could be a game changer in the courtrooms of America.