On Friday, the state of California initiated legal action against five of the world’s largest oil corporations, alleging that these companies were responsible for causing billions of dollars in damages and deliberately deceiving the public by downplaying the risks associated with fossil fuels. This lawsuit, which one defendant dismissed as “groundless” and “politicized,” is just one of several legal actions brought by various US cities, counties, and states against the fossil fuel industry for its role in climate change and decades-long disinformation campaigns.
The civil case was filed in the superior court of San Francisco and targets ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron (which is headquartered in California). The American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry association, is also named as a defendant.
According to the 135-page complaint, “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.” This deception, the complaint alleges, delayed societal responses to global warming and resulted in significant costs to people, property, and natural resources.
The lawsuit seeks the establishment of an abatement fund to cover future damages caused by climate-related disasters in California, a state particularly vulnerable to climate change-induced wildfires, flooding, and extreme weather events. The complaint contends that the defendants deliberately misrepresented the scientific consensus on climate change to stall regulatory actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby safeguarding their industry’s profits.
The API criticized the lawsuit, asserting that climate policy should be determined by Congress, not the courts. Chevron also voiced its opposition, arguing that addressing climate change requires international cooperation rather than individual lawsuits. Shell expressed agreement on the urgency of climate action but argued that the courtroom was an inappropriate venue for addressing these issues.
Environmental activists view California’s legal action as a “watershed moment” in the campaign against oil companies. The Center for Climate Integrity pointed out that California, as the world’s largest economy and a major oil-producing state, is the first to take fossil fuel corporations to court over climate deception.
California Governor Gavin Newsom emphasized the state’s commitment to holding major polluters accountable, stating, “California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable.”
This lawsuit is part of a broader trend of environmental litigation against fossil fuel companies that gained momentum around 2017. The industry had attempted to avoid state trials on procedural grounds, but in May, the US Supreme Court’s refusal to consider appeals in two related cases allowed these lawsuits to proceed. These legal actions draw inspiration from successful cases against Big Tobacco and the pharmaceutical industry regarding issues like tobacco-related health risks and the opioid epidemic.