Big Oil is facing one of its most significant legal challenges from the state of California: a major oil-producing region with a big economy, and the site of some groundbreaking legal battles.
Oil and gas executives have known for decades that reliance on fossil fuels would cause “catastrophic results,” but they suppressed that information by actively pushing out disinformation on the topic, alleges [pdf] the State of California in its lawsuit. “Their deception caused a delayed societal response to global warming.”
“Their misconduct has resulted in tremendous costs to people, property, and natural resources, which continue to unfold each day,” the State asserts, adding that Californians “should not have to bear all the costs of climate change alone.”
The civil lawsuit seeks to create an abatement fund to pay for the future damages caused by climate-related disasters in the state, reports The New York Times. It targets five companies—ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron—and the country’s leading fossil lobby, the American Petroleum Institute (API). It also includes among defendants “Does 1 through 100, Inclusive,” indicating that other defendants may be named later if new evidence comes to light.
“The companies that have polluted our air, choked our skies with smoke, wreaked havoc on our water cycle, and contaminated our lands must be made to mitigate the harms they have brought upon the State,” states the court document. “This lawsuit seeks to hold those companies accountable for the lies they have told and the damage they have caused.”
California is on the front lines of extreme weather fueled by climate change, with wildfires, floods, sea level rise, searing heat, and tropical storms battering the state, writes the Times. The case alleges that damages from these events were caused by the actions of fossil fuel companies that have downplayed the risks since the 1950s and 60s, by which time their scientists had figured out that greenhouse gas pollution would warm the planet and change its climate—with catastrophic results.
“These folks had this information and lied to us, and we could have staved off some of the most significant consequences,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “It’s shameful. It sickens you to your core.”
The disinformation campaigns that followed in the 1970s, combined with the “aggressive promotion” of fossil fuel products, allowed the industry to grow as consumption rose, the lawsuit alleges. The defendants profited, while California spent “and will continue to spend” billions of dollars to recover from climate-induced destruction.
Further, the actions of oil companies have slowed the progress of alternative energy sources and increased the costs of adapting to, and mitigating, the adverse impacts of the climate crisis, says California. In more recent advertising campaigns, fossil fuel companies “falsely and misleadingly portray” their products as “green,” and portray themselves as “climate-friendly energy companies that are deeply engaged in finding solutions to climate change.”
In reality, the defendants “continue to primarily invest in, develop, promote, and profit from fossil fuel products and heavily market those products to consumers, with full knowledge that those products will continue to exacerbate climate change harms,” the lawsuit states.
California aims to establish a fund that could be used to pay for recovery, mitigation, and adaptation efforts. Precedent can be found in an abatement fund that followed an earlier settlement between several California cities and lead paint companies, writes the Times. After decades of litigation, the paint companies agreed to settle for US$305 million, which went to an abatement fund.
“This has been a multi-decade, ongoing campaign to seek endless profits at the expense of our planet, our people, and the greedy corporations and individuals need to be held accountable,” state attorney general Rob Bonta said in an interview. “That’s where we come in.”
California’s case is among a wave of climate lawsuits brought by cities and states across the U.S. and beyond. Fossil fuel companies have tried to move some of the cases to federal courts—where they believe they have better chances of winning—but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the matter earlier this year. That means the cases will stay in state courts, where experts say municipalities have better odds of winning damages, writes the Times.
Defendant API’s general counsel Ryan Meyers called California’s case a “meritless” campaign against “a foundational American industry.”
“Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system,” Meyers said in a statement. Chevron CEO Mike Wirth gave a similar response during an interview with Bloomberg.