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Michigan AG Nessel plans to sue fossil fuel companies over climate change

Dana Nessel at a table
Attorney General Dana Nessel on Thursday accused fossil fuel companies of knowing “exactly what they were doing” by selling a product that causes climate change. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has announced plans to sue fossil fuel companies over climate change
  • The state is seeking proposals from outside lawyers, who would work on behalf of the state
  • Environmentalists cheered the planned lawsuit, while fossil fuel industry insiders called it ‘meritless’

Michigan may soon become the latest state to sue the fossil fuel industry over the climate damages caused by its products.

On Thursday, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that her department is seeking proposals from outside lawyers and law firms willing to pursue litigation as special assistant attorneys general working on behalf of the state.


In an interview with Bridge, Nessel said Michigan taxpayers face “billions of dollars of losses” as climate change fuels extreme weather, warms lakes and rivers to the point of crisis for fish species, destroys northern forests and threatens the state’s people and economy.

All of it, she said, was “caused by these companies that knew exactly what they were doing.”


The move adds Michigan to a list of dozens of cities and states that are suing companies like Exxon Mobil and BP, arguing their decades-long efforts to conceal the perils of burning fossil fuels were criminal.

Greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuels have heated the earth’s atmosphere by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, with dangerous impacts ranging from sea-level rise and melting glaciers to mega-wildfires and deadly heat.

Nessel said she hopes to recoup some of Michigan’s costs, holding fossil fuel companies accountable for “jeopardizing Michigan’s economic future and way of life.”

Her office plans to accept proposals through June 5 in a blind-bid process, and could pick a winner as soon as August.

The winning lawyer or firm would be paid a contingency fee, a term usually used to describe an arrangement in which upfront costs are contained and lawyers instead receive a portion of any money awarded through a successful lawsuit. 

Industry documents reveal that oil companies knew as far back as the 1960s that their products caused climate change. For example, investigations by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times revealed that Exxon Mobil’s company scientists warned their bosses of the peril, but the company then spent decades publicly denying the science.

Denise Keele, executive director of the Michigan Climate Action Network, said that disinformation set society back decades in the quest to address climate change.

“Folks like us are still out there fighting that disinformation,” Keele said. She called Nessel’s planned lawsuit “an amazing way to continue to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the damage they have wrought.”

Industry insiders and allies criticized such lawsuits as a “meritless” waste of taxpayer resources.  

“Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not a patchwork of courts,” said Ryan Meyers, senior vice president and general counsel for the American Petroleum Institute. He lauded the industry for providing “affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers.”

After a spate of lawsuits by California cities, Rhode Island became the first state to sue in 2018. Several others have followed.

Nessel said she had long hoped to add Michigan to the list, but had been busy with other major cases including opioid litigation that is expected to bring $1.6 billion in settlement money to Michigan.

Nessel said she is undeterred by pushback from the fossil fuel industry.

“I hope that we're at a place right now, where people no longer believe the lies that have been propagated by this industry,” she said. “Just the way that people now have come to understand how badly Big Tobacco lied to us and how badly the drug manufacturers and distributors lied to us, that they know now that the fossil fuel companies did the same.”

Although the case will likely not conclude before Nessel leaves office at the end of 2026, she said she wanted to get a lawsuit underway to put her successor in a strong position to win.

Other states’ fossil fuel lawsuits have followed a playbook used to win massive legal settlements with tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. Though strategies vary, they generally claim that oil companies violated consumer protection laws by hiding the harmful impacts of their products.

They have been filed in state courts, where plaintiffs believe they have better odds of prevailing given that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 dismissed a landmark climate lawsuit.

Hoping for a similar outcome, fossil fuel industry lawyers have routinely petitioned to transfer the cases to federal courts. But they suffered a setback last year, when the Supreme Court declined to reconsider a lower court decision that kept several cases in state court. 


A global panel of climate scientists has warned that humanity has until 2050 to stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or face dangerous climate tipping points. 

Legal experts say billions of dollars are on the line in the suits. Huge as the financial stakes may be, a successful suit likely would not come close to covering the full cost of fossil fuel pollution.

A study published last fall in the journal Nature estimated that the global cost of extreme weather events caused by climate change could reach $3.1 trillion by midcentury.

Those costs are already accruing. According to the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment, extreme weather events that inflict $1 billion or more of damage (adjusted for inflation) are five times more common today than they were 40 years ago, going from once every four months to once every three weeks.

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