The state of California has taken a significant step in addressing climate change by filing a lawsuit against five major oil companies for allegedly downplaying the risks associated with fossil fuels while causing extensive financial and environmental damage.
The lawsuit, filed in the superior court of San Francisco on Friday, specifically targets Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron.
California’s legal action represents a watershed moment, as it places a spotlight on the fossil fuel industry’s role in climate change and seeks the establishment of a fund to compensate for future climate-related disasters. This move follows a series of similar cases brought forth by various U.S. cities, counties, and states, all aimed at holding fossil fuel interests accountable for their contributions to climate change and alleged disinformation campaigns spanning several decades.
Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general leading the case, asserted that these oil giants had intentionally obscured the dangers of fossil fuels to the public since the 1950s, despite their knowledge that these products were driving significant global warming. The 135-page complaint stated, “Oil and gas company executives have known for decades that reliance on fossil fuels would cause these catastrophic results, but they suppressed that information from the public and policymakers by actively pushing out disinformation on the topic.”
Bonta further emphasized, “Their deception caused a delayed societal response to global warming. And their misconduct has resulted in tremendous costs to people, property, and natural resources, which continue to unfold each day.”
This legal action is a significant development in the ongoing wave of environmental litigation against fossil fuel companies that began in 2017. The industry has previously attempted to avoid state trials on procedural grounds, but in May, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider appeals in two cases, allowing them to proceed.
The lawsuit underscores the devastating impacts of climate change in California, including record-breaking heatwaves, devastating wildfires, and crippling droughts. California Governor Gavin Newsom expressed his frustration, stating, “These folks had this information and lied to us, and we could have staved off some of the most significant consequences. It’s shameful. It sickens you to your core.”
The approach taken in these lawsuits draws inspiration from successful cases against Big Tobacco and the pharmaceutical industry over the proliferation of opioids. Attorney General Bonta’s lawsuit is not seeking compensation for damages related to a specific event but aims to create a fund that can be used to finance recovery efforts from extreme weather events and support mitigation and adaptation initiatives across the state.
As of now, there has been no immediate response from the oil majors regarding California’s lawsuit. Oil companies have previously argued that policies addressing climate change should be formulated by the federal executive branch and Congress, rather than through a patchwork of legal decisions across the United States.