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California has sued several of the world’s biggest oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP, claiming they deceived the public for decades about how the burning of fossil fuels is destroying the planet.
The civil lawsuit alleges oil and gas executives knew that relying on fossil fuels would have catastrophic results but suppressed the information by pushing out disinformation on the topic.
Their deception caused a delayed societal response to global warming, which has resulted in billions of dollars in damage including drought, sprawling wildfires and historic storms to California, it said.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the superior court in San Francisco by California’s attorney-general on Friday, seeks damages from the oil industry to help pay for the costs of climate change and to prevent the industry from engaging in further pollution. It also names ConocoPhillips, Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute as defendants.
“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,” said California governor Gavin Newsom.
“California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable.”
California’s lawsuit adds to a list of more than 40 climate litigation cases filed by US states and municipalities against the oil and gas industry. These actions seek to use consumer protection, racketeering, product liability and other laws to seek damages to pay for climate-related costs.
Globally, the number of climate-related court cases has doubled in the five years between 2017 and summer 2023, according to research by the UN and Columbia University. The majority of the cases have been filed in the US.
Last month, a judge in Montana ruled in favour of youth climate activists in a landmark decision that established that young people had a right to “a clean and healthful environment”.
The legal onslaught against the oil and gas industry has fuelled a political debate in the US where some prominent Republican politicians, including Texas governor Greg Abbott, have dismissed these climate lawsuits as “lawfare”, arguing they harm industry and costs jobs.
The API said the California lawsuit was part of a co-ordinated campaign to wage “meritless politicised lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers”.
“The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to US consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” the API said in a statement. “Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system.”
Shell said it agreed action was needed now on climate change and it fully supported the transition to a lower-carbon future. But it said the courtroom was not the right venue to address the issue.
“Smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress,” said Shell.
Marco Grasso, professor of political geography at the University of Milano-Bicocca, said California’s suit was a bold move that would further shift attention towards the financial duty owed by the fossil fuel industry to climate victims.
“Other entities have already sued fossil fuel companies for the same reasons, but this lawsuit is particularly significant given the role, status, and vulnerability to the climate crisis of California,” he said.
A recent peer-reviewed analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 37 per cent of the total area scorched by forest fires in the western US and south-western Canada since 1986 could be attributed to carbon emissions linked to fossil fuel and cement production.
“It’s past time for these companies to stop their greenwashing and disinformation campaigns and pay their fair share of the costs the climate crisis is imposing on Californians,” said Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In 2020, Maui County filed a lawsuit seeking damages from Chevron and Exxon. Earlier this summer, the island suffered unprecedented wildfires that killed almost 100 people and decimated the town of Lahaina.
California’s 135-page legal complaint claims oil industry scientists knew as early as the 1950s that the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels would be catastrophic and there was only a narrow window of time for governments to take action.
Additional reporting by Attracta Mooney