DeSmog

California Joins States Suing Big Oil for Its Role in the Climate Crisis

Lawsuit filed against five oil and gas majors and API demands they pay for their decades of deception.
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The California State Superior Court in San Francisco. Credit: Cocoablini (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The state of California has jumped into the ring in the fight to hold some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers accountable for their role in driving the worsening climate crisis. On Friday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit against five oil and gas majors including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, and ConocoPhillips as well as their chief lobby group the American Petroleum Institute. The lawsuit alleges these entities deliberately deceived the public about the dangers of fossil fuels and their impact on the climate system, and effectively engineered a delayed societal response to addressing the climate problem.

“These [companies] have been playing us for fools,” California Gov. Gavin Newom said on the NYC Climate Week stage on Sunday. “[They] have been lying since the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s and ’80s. They knew.”

CA Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta at NYC Climate Week in 2023.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Rob Bonta at a NYC Climate Week press conference on Sunday, September 17, 2023, discussing the state’s climate accountability lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry. Credit: Dana Drugmand

California’s filing adds to a growing wave of climate lawsuits brought by cities, counties and states across the country against Exxon and its industry peers. A handful of the state’s coastal communities led the way in this wave of litigation by filing some of the first cases against fossil fuel companies in 2017 and 2018. Now more than three dozen states and municipalities are taking corporate climate polluters to court.

California has become the eighth state to file a climate liability lawsuit, joining Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Delaware, Minnesota, and New Jersey. Given its sheer size, California’s move to take legal action adds significant weight to this mounting roster of states. Attorney General Bonta underscored this in a press briefing on Sunday, noting that California is the “biggest economy yet to sue these companies for fueling climate change and for lying about it.”

“We’re joining that fight, on a scale and scope that the oil companies are familiar with, because California, as they know well, means business,” Newsom added. 

“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,” Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, a group advocating for holding climate polluters accountable, said in a statement.

According to the complaint, filed in Superior Court for the County of San Francisco, the defendants “have misled consumers and the public about climate change for decades,” mounting a disinformation campaign to discredit the emerging scientific consensus dating back to at least the 1970s. The alleged deception continues to this day through misleading advertising that greenwashes the companies’ image by portraying them as climate-friendly, the complaint contends.

Misleading advertising is among the charges the lawsuit brings, along with misleading environmental marketing; unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent business practices; products liability; pollution and destruction of natural resources; and public nuisance. California is seeking monetary damages, specifically in the form of an abatement fund to help mitigate the rising costs associated with climate disasters and climate adaptation.

Noting that just this year the state has suffered from multiple climate-related disasters such as extreme flooding and drought, severe wildfires, and a record-hot summer, the complaint argues that California taxpayers should not have to bear all the costs of dealing with these escalating climate impacts. Instead, “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,” the complaint states, adding it “seeks to hold those companies accountable for the lies they have told and the damage they have caused.”

While other climate liability lawsuits against fossil fuel companies have been tied up in procedural battles for years, many of the cases are now on track towards trial in state courts following a pivotal decision from the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year. That decision declined the industry defendants’ request to intervene and to rule that the litigation cannot advance in state courts. 

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the industry pleas was instrumental in spurring California to file suit. 

“In April the Supreme Court ruled on that issue that we think puts [it] to bed, and allows us to get to where we want to go, to the merits, to hold them accountable for their deceit,” Bonta told reporters on Sunday. 

Newsom added that the Supreme Court’s decision “really accelerated our conversations, our efforts, and then we moved to get to where we are today.”

California is also encouraging other states and even other countries to step into the ring alongside it in the effort to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. 

Bonta said he hopes California’s lawsuit “will be an inspiration to other states and other entities to get involved and join us, to sue and be part of the effort to hold the industry accountable.” 

“I just met with another governor a moment ago. We want to see this spread, we want more and more jurisdictions, the United Nations and more countries to move in this direction,” Newsom added. “Enough’s enough,” he said. “The climate change crisis is a fossil fuel crisis.”

This article was originally published on Saturday, September 16, 2023 and updated with additional reporting on Sunday, September 17, 2023.

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Dana is an environmental journalist focusing on climate change and climate accountability reporting. She writes regularly for DeSmog covering topics such as fossil fuel industry opposition to climate action, climate change lawsuits, greenwashing and false climate solutions, and clean transportation.

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