Oil field in California

California sues oil companies over ‘misleading’ climate claims

Image credit: iStock

BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell are among the companies accused by the state of California of deceiving the public about the environmental impact of fossil fuels.

California has filed a lawsuit against five of the largest oil companies in the world over a “decades-long campaign of deception” that led to climate change-related events such as storms and wildfires, which caused billions of dollars in damages and harmed thousands of residents. 

The five companies are ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP, as well as trade association the American Petroleum Institute (API). 

Attorney general Rob Bonta said: “Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades – that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change – but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment. Enough is enough.

“With our lawsuit, California becomes the largest geographic area and the largest economy to take these giant oil companies to court.”

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco, provides evidence that the companies knew about the damaging effects of fossil fuels on the environment for more than 50 years. It cites a report received by the API in 1968, in which researchers from the Stanford Research Institute claimed “significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and ... there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe”.

The complaint also mentions a 1978 internal Exxon memo, which stated that “[p]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical”.

Instead of addressing these risks, the suit claims the companies mounted a disinformation campaign beginning at least as early as the 1970s to discredit scientific consensus on climate change. 

The California attorney general's office said it had found evidence of six separate causes of action: public nuisance; damage to natural resources; false advertising; misleading environmental marketing; unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices; and products liability (strict and negligent). 

With the lawsuit, the state seeks creation of a fund paid for by the companies, to cover the costs of recovery efforts, following devastating storms and fires.

“For more than 50 years, Big Oil has been lying to us – covering up the fact that they’ve long known how dangerous the fossil fuels they produce are for our planet,” said California governor Gavin Newsom. “California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for billions of dollars in damages – wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air, deadly heatwaves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells. With this lawsuit, California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable and deliver the justice our people deserve.”

In response, Shell stressed that the courtroom was not the proper venue to address global warming.

“Addressing climate change requires a collaborative, society-wide approach,” Shell said. “We agree that action is needed now on climate change, and we fully support the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future.”

Ryan Meyers, API senior vice-president, echoed the sentiment: “This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicised lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of California taxpayer resources.” 

California is not the first state to take legal action against oil and gas companies for their environmental impact. Smaller states such as Rhode Island, Baltimore and Honolulu have filed similar complaints. 

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