Climate Change

‘50 years of deception’: California sues five Big Oil companies for lying about climate change

Lawsuit against oil and gas companies for “creating, contributing and assisting in the creation of state-wide climate change-related harms in California”

By Susan Chacko
Published: Monday 18 September 2023
Photo: iStock

California Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta, in a press release on September 16, 2023, announced the state has sued five major oil and gas companies for over five decades of deception, cover-up and damage that have allegedly cost California taxpayers billions of dollars in health and environmental impacts.

Bonta filed the lawsuit, The People of the State of California vs Exxon Mobil Corporation & Others, September 15, 2023 in San Francisco County Superior Court.

It alleged that the five companies, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and the American Petroleum Institute “concealed and misrepresented facts regarding the dangers of fossil fuel products and encouraged continued use of fossil fuels and discouraged concerted action on greenhouse gas emissions”.

Read more: Just 5 oil cos spent 251 mn euros in lobbying against climate policies: Report

“The state of California has suffered and is suffering and will suffer injuries from the oil and gas industry’s wrongful conduct,” the 135-page lawsuit stated.

California is experiencing the consequences in the form of extreme weather events like extreme heat, drought and water shortages; extreme wildfire; public health injuries; extreme storms and flooding; damage to agriculture; sea level rise, coastal flooding and coastal erosion; ecosystem, habitat and biodiversity disruption, it added.

The lawsuit demanded that oil companies pay their fair share for recovery efforts from climate change-induced superstorms and wildfires. The compensation would also protect people from the health impacts of extreme heat and managing dwindling water supplies in extreme drought.

Infrastructure and homes would also be fortified against sea level rise and coastal and inland flooding.

Big Oil has been lying and covering up the fact that they’ve long known how dangerous fossil fuels are for our planet, said Newsom. 

“Wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air, deadly heatwaves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells. California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable,” the Governor said.

Read more: Exxon knew: Big Oil’s scientists documented accurate climate predictions since 1970s, 1980s

California is the first major oil producing state to take fossil fuel companies to court for their climate deception. 

Bonta is the ninth attorney general in the United States to sue Big Oil companies for fraud or climate damages, as well as the first to file a climate litigation. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court declined requests from the fossil fuel industry to intervene in similar lawsuits in seven other states.

Those lawsuits are now advancing towards trial in state courts.

Whether it’s fires, droughts, extreme heat or sea-level rise, Californians have been living in a climate emergency caused by the fossil fuel industry, said Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity in a statement. 

Wiles said:

California’s decision to take Big Oil companies to court is a watershed moment in the rapidly expanding legal fight to hold major polluters accountable for decades of climate lies.

Studies have shown that anthropogenic climate change impacts have intensified summer forest fires in California.

Read more: Leading financers who pledged Net Zero are still backing fossil fuel expansion, finds report

Researchers led by Marco Turco & et al (published in journal PNAS on June 12, 2023) have estimated that from 1971-2021, anthropogenic climate change contributed to a 172 per cent increase in forest burned area. The increase to 2021 from 1996 was even more humongous at 320 per cent.

On September 12, 2023, California passed a bill called  SB-253 Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act that requires the California Air Resources Board to develop rules by 2025 for companies with annual revenues over $1 billion. This means big companies will be required to disclose their carbon footprint. 

It would also force big companies doing business in the state to disclose their direct greenhouse gas emissions as well as those that come from activities like employee business travel.

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