California sues oil giants, claiming decades of deception

The state of California sued several of the world’s largest oil companies Friday, saying their actions caused tens of billions of dollars in damage and misled the public by downplaying the risks posed by fossil fuels.

The civil case, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, is the latest and largest lawsuit targeting oil, gas and coal companies for their role in climate change. It seeks to create a mitigation fund to pay for future damages caused by climate-related disasters in the state.

The lawsuit targets five companies: Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron, headquartered in San Ramon, California. The American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based industry trade group, is also listed as a defendant.

Seven other states and dozens of municipalities have filed similar lawsuits in recent years. But the California lawsuit immediately becomes one of the most significant legal challenges facing the fossil fuel industry.

In addition to being the nation’s most populous state, California is a major oil and gas producer, and its attorney general’s office has a history of bringing landmark cases that are emulated in smaller states. California is also on the front lines of extreme weather events driven by climate change, with wildfires, flooding, rising sea levels, extreme heat and even tropical storms battering the state.

“California’s case constitutes the most significant, decisive and powerful climate action directed against the oil and gas industry in U.S. history,” said Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, a nonprofit that tracks climate litigation.

Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP and ConocoPhillips did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Ryan Meyers, general counsel of the American Petroleum Institute, said: “This ongoing, coordinated campaign to pursue politicized and baseless lawsuits against a fundamental American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and a huge waste of California taxpayer resources. Climate policy is a matter for Congress, not the judiciary.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the people of California by state Attorney General Rob Bonta, was filed Friday evening. He claims that starting in the 1950s, companies and their allies intentionally downplayed the risks posed by fossil fuels to the public, even though they understood that their products were likely to lead to significant global warming. It claims that Exxon, Chevron and the other companies have continued to mislead the public about their commitment to reducing emissions in recent years, boasting of minor investments in alternative fuels while reaping record profits from fuel production. fossils that contribute to global warming.

“These people had this information and lied to us, and we could have avoided some of the biggest consequences,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. “It is shameful. It makes you sick to your core.

The lawsuit claims the oil companies created a public nuisance, destroyed natural resources and violated false advertising and product liability laws.

“Oil and gas company executives have known for decades that reliance on fossil fuels would lead to these catastrophic results, but they have hidden this information from the public and policymakers by actively spreading misinformation on the subject,” reads the report. the complaint. “Their deception has delayed the societal response to global warming. And their misbehavior has resulted in enormous costs to people, property and natural resources that continue to occur every day. »

In a detailed 135-page complaint, the state argues that the companies and their trade groups knew since the 1950s that emissions from their products would dangerously warm the planet. But rather than warning the public, seeking to reduce their emissions or investing in cleaner technologies, they have downplayed the dangers and presented fossil fuels as safe.

The complaint claims that corporate greenwashing has continued into the present day, with oil companies promoting certain types of gasoline as environmentally friendly, and that the companies have recently backed away from their reduction commitments. shows.

The lawsuit also details the increasing damage climate change is inflicting on California in the form of record heat, drought and water shortages, wildfires, extreme storms, flooding, crop damage, coastal erosion and loss of biodiversity.

“For the last 10 years, this has shaken me to my core,” Mr. Newsom said. “These are things that we imagined we would experience in 2040 and 2050, but which have been brought back to the present moment, and the time has come for accountability. »

Oil, gas and coal companies are facing a wave of climate-related lawsuits. Cities and states across the country have filed lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages.

Fossil fuel companies tried to have many cases moved from state court to federal court, where they believed they would have a better chance of winning. But earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the issue, meaning the cases will remain in state courts, where experts say municipalities have a better chance of winning damages. -interests.

Two recent lawsuits against major oil companies, one in Puerto Rico and the other in Hoboken, New Jersey, resulted in charges under both state and federal versions of the Racketeer Influenced Organizations Act and corrupt. But the California lawsuit does not result in claims under the state’s RICO law.

The lawsuit also does not seek damages for a specific weather event, a strategy used in the Puerto Rico case and a recent lawsuit filed in Multnomah County, Oregon.

Instead, Mr. Bonta is seeking to create a fund that would be used to finance recovery from extreme weather events and mitigation and adaptation efforts across the state. The lawsuit claims California has already spent tens of billions of dollars funding climate disasters and expects costs to rise significantly in coming years.

“This is an ongoing, decades-long campaign to seek endless profits at the expense of our planet, our people, and greedy corporations and individuals must be held accountable,” Bonta said in an interview. “This is where we come in.”

There is precedent for such a fund. Several California cities have sued lead paint manufacturers on similar grounds. After decades of litigation, the companies agreed to settle for $305 million, which was used to create a reduction fund.

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