The state of California has filed a lawsuit against some of the biggest oil and gas companies, claiming they have deceived the public about the risks of fossil fuels – the main culprits behind the climate crisis. The lawsuit seeks to create a fund, to be financed by the companies to pay for recovery efforts after extreme weather events. Essentially, California wants big oil to pay for its past sins.
If California were a country, it would be the 5th largest economy in the world, and more productive than India and the United Kingdom. Other states and cities in the US such as Baltimore and Rhode Island have filed similar complaints but California is by far the biggest economy to file a lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry.
Governor Gavin Newsom said the companies in the lawsuit – Shell, Chevron, British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil, should be held accountable.
“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. It has been decades of damage and deception,” Newson said in a news release. “Wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air and deadly heat waves.”
“These folks had this information and lied to us, and we could have staved off some of the most significant consequences,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. “It’s shameful. It’s sickens you to your core.”
Decades of deception
The complaint argues that the five fossil fuel companies have known for decades that burning fossil fuels would lead to a higher global temperatures, but they intentionally suppressed this information from the public to protect their profits. Essentially, companies spent billions to spread disinformation about climate change, weaving a complex disinformation campaign that's still going strong to this day.
California is suing Big Oil for lying about climate change.
We're taking five major oil companies to court for wreaking havoc on our planet and lying to people about the dangers of fossil fuels.
It’s time they pay their fair share. pic.twitter.com/hu1Glnq4Da
— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) September 16, 2023
The fact that this deception continues today, the state of California said, is particularly damaging. Oil companies promote fossil fuel products as clean, green, or low-emissions despite they still produce carbon pollution. Companies also praise themselves for spending on renewable energy when in fact solar and wind make up a fraction of percent of their earnings, the state said.
“Big Oil’s lies and cover-ups have caused ongoing climate disasters that have imposed billions of dollars of costs on Californians. We should not have to foot the bill alone while oil companies profit,” the office of the governor said in a press release, calling companies to pay their “fair share” to cope with the effects of the climate crisis.
The state of California is asking the court to order fossil fuel companies to pay the costs of their impacts on the environment, human health, and livelihoods. Companies should also be banned from engaging in further pollution and stop their ongoing efforts to misinform about their impacts, paying penalties for having lied to the public before.
“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,” the complaint reads. “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.”
The lawsuit sent ripples
Unsurprisingly, the oil industry tried to shift the debate.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), a lobby group of fossil fuel companies, said in a news release that climate policy should be discussed in Congress and not in the courtroom -- a potential sign that the oil industry is distressed by the lawsuit. Senior VP Ryan Meyers described the lawsuit as a “coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry.”
Shell also issued a statement and agreed with API that this shouldn’t be discussed in the courtroom. “Addressing climate change requires a collaborative, society-wide approach. 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,” the press release reads.
On the other hand, environmental organizations celebrated California state’s decision to take fossil fuel companies to court. Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a news release that this is a “watershed moment” in the expanding legal fight to hold fossil fuel companies accountable “for decades of climate lies.”
The global count of climate change cases has seen a twofold increase since 2015, reaching a total surpassing 2,000, according to a report last year. In the meantime, new studies keep unveiling how much fossil fuel companies knew about the climate crisis. A study in January found Exxon had made very accurate climate predictions in the 1970s.
The lawsuit is one of the most striking climate lawsuits in history, but it's not the only high-profile case against big oil. Fossil fuel companies have tried to get these cases moved from the state court to the federal court, presumably as they thought they face lower risks in federal court. But earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the matter. This means the cases will stay in state court and there's a real chance that oil companies will have to pay damages.
The California litigation is also significant as it doesn't seek reparation for a particular event, but rather for consistent disinformation. This is could set a precedent for other lawsuits as well. In addition, there's even a precedent for this type of lawsuits. Previously, multiple California cities sued the makers of lead paint on a similar type of lawsuit. It took decades, but eventually, the cities won and the companies agreed to settle and a compensation fund was set up with the money.
Whether or not something like this will happen with the oil companies remains to be seen, but more and more municipalities and states are starting to seek climate retribution from big oil. Ultimately, these lawsuits could end up playing a big part in that.