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California opens the floodgates on Big Oil
Attorney General Rob Bonta’s lawsuit against ExxonMobil and other oil giants signals a new era for climate accountability.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
The state of California just launched a game-changing climate lawsuit against oil majors, bringing the weight of one of the world’s largest economies and the most populous state in the nation to bear against some of the biggest fossil fuel companies on earth.
California’s size and political influence — and its position as the first major oil producing state to take the industry to court — give the lawsuit distinction as likely the most powerful action to date to hold Big Oil companies accountable for lying about their products’ role in climate change. The Golden State’s action could very likely open the floodgates for other states that might have been waiting to make their own moves; while Attorney General Rob Bonta is the ninth attorney general to sue Big Oil, 16 attorneys general signed on to the latest legal brief in support of a climate accountability case.
Both Bonta and Governor Gavin Newsom indicated as much while speaking at Climate Week NYC on Sunday. Bonta said he hopes California’s move “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,” Newsom said, shortly before posting a photo with Governor Wes Moore of Maryland, where three municipalities are already suing Big Oil. “We want to see this spread, we want more and more jurisdictions, the United Nations and more countries to move in this direction.”
The lawsuit, filed late Friday in California state court, argues that ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute “aggressive[ly] promot[ed] the use of fossil fuel products” while “misrepresenting and concealing the hazards of those products to deceive consumers and the public.” As a result, climate action was delayed for decades, the case argues, and Californians now face a regular onslaught of disasters — from deadly wildfires and droughts to dangerous heat waves, hurricanes, and floods.
“Californians and their families, communities, and small businesses should not have to bear all the costs of climate change alone,” reads the complaint, citing the billions of dollars residents have and will spend to recover from such disasters. “This lawsuit seeks to hold those companies accountable for the lies they have told and the damage they have caused.”
In a first for state climate lawsuits, California’s case looks to create an abatement fund that fossil fuel defendants would pay into to help residents foot the bill for adaptation and recovery. That remedy is based on a strong California law, which was successfully used to create a $305 million abatement fund for lead paint.
Here are some other things to know about California’s case:
Bonta’s lawsuit builds on cases filed by eight California municipalities.
In 2017 and 2018, eight California municipalities — San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz, Richmond, Imperial Beach, and the counties of San Mateo, San Marin, and Santa Cruz — filed some of the earliest climate liability lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry. According to the attorney general’s complaint, the state’s lawsuit won’t supersede any of those pending local actions, which are expected to reach trial first.
The latest of those cases was filed in Richmond, the site of a major Chevron oil refinery known for its chronic pollution, explosions, and fires. The city, mostly made up of people of color, is also home to soaring rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and childhood asthma.
But many residents say Chevron, which funds the city’s newspaper (which it uses as a PR platform) and is its largest employer, continues to mislead the public about its operations and push for false climate solutions that will worsen environmental justice harms and continue its oil and gas business in the community. Since the company built a much-touted hydrogen plant at its “modernized” Richmond refinery in 2018, emissions flaring incidents have skyrocketed.
“There’s a daily effort to create this misinformation campaign while we’re fighting to survive,” said Katt Ramos, Managing Director at the Richmond Our Power coalition. “What [Chevron is] actually doing is prolonging their life while causing us harm with unproven technology.”
Chevron and the other oil companies’ ongoing misinformation and greenwashing plays a major role in California’s claims.
California’s complaint puts a spotlight on the companies’ modern deception.
California’s complaint documents Big Oil’s modern greenwashing and deception about the environmental benefits of its operations.
“Through recent advertising campaigns and public statements in California and/or intended to reach California, including but not limited to online advertisements and social media posts, Defendants falsely and misleadingly portray these products as ‘green,’ and the Fossil Fuel Defendants portray themselves as climate-friendly energy companies that are deeply engaged in finding solutions to climate change,” reads the complaint.
Among many claims familiar to other climate accountability suits, including public nuisance, false advertising, fraud, and negligence, the case also brings a new cause of action under California law: misleading environmental marketing. California argues the companies are violating the state’s law meant to protect consumers against greenwashing.
According to the complaint, the companies deceptively promoted natural gas as a climate solution; deceptively marketed fossil fuel products as “low carbon,” “emissions-reducing,” “clean” and/or “green,” just as tobacco companies promoted “low-tar” or “light” cigarettes as healthy alternatives to giving up smoking; marketed their businesses as contributing to “climate solutions” despite their negligible investments in clean energy as opposed to their increasing production of oil and gas; and claimed to be in alignment with international climate goals, all while protecting and growing their business in fossil fuels.
Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported never-before-seen documentation of Exxon’s deception under the reign of former CEO Rex Tillerson, who pledged the company’s support for climate actions like the Paris Agreement while working to cast doubt on climate science behind the scenes. Exxon is the lead defendant in California’s case.
California’s case is the latest sign of the evolving politics of taking on Big Oil.
Both Bonta, who filed the suit and has said he is “seriously considering” a run for governor, and Newsom, who is expected to be preparing for a future presidential run, are clearly embracing this issue.
“The scale and scope of what the state of California can do we think can move the needle,” Newsom told David Gelles of the New York Times at the opening ceremony of Climate Week NYC. “We cannot address [climate change] unless we get serious about addressing the issue. And the issue is fossil fuels, the issue is the deceit from these companies.”
It’s the latest sign that politicians see taking on Big Oil as an increasingly popular move, as we saw during last year’s midterm elections.
A sign at Sunday’s March to End Fossil Fuels in New York City.
It’s a tipping point for the legal fight for climate accountability.
California is the first state to file since the Supreme Court cleared the way for climate accountability suits against Big Oil to proceed toward trial in state courts. On Sunday, Bonta told reporters that the Supreme Court’s ruling “allows us to get to where we want to go, to the merits, to hold them accountable for their deceit.”
The industry’s attempts to delay and derail the cases have persistently failed, and now California’s in the game, with all signs pointing to more lawsuits against Big Oil to come.
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