California takes on big oil, claiming they lied about climate change

oil refinery
Photo credit Getty Images

The state of California has filed a lawsuit against a group of the world's largest oil companies, claiming they misled the public for half a century about the risk of fossil fuels and climate change.

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, seeks to hold the companies accountable for "decades of deception, cover-up, and billions of dollars in health and environmental impacts."

"Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades — that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment. Enough is enough," Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. "With our lawsuit, California becomes the largest geographic area and the largest economy to take these giant oil companies to court. From extreme heat to drought and water shortages, the climate crisis they have caused is undeniable. It is time they pay to abate the harm they have caused."

Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron are named as defendants in the lawsuit, along with the domestic oil industry's biggest lobby, the American Petroleum Institute.

According to the lawsuit, industry-funded reports directly linked fossil fuel consumption to rising global temperatures and damage to our air, land, and water. However, oil companies intentionally suppressed that information from the public and policymakers to protect their profits, and spent billions of dollars to spread disinformation on climate change and delay the transition away from fossil fuels, the lawsuit claims.

"Their deception caused a delayed societal response to global warming," the complaint says. "And their misconduct has resulted in tremendous costs to people, property, and natural resources, which continue to unfold each day."

Big Oil's "lies and cover ups" have caused ongoing climate disasters that have imposed billions of dollars of costs on Californians, the lawsuit states. The deception continues today, as oil companies promote fossil fuel products as "clean" or "green" or "low-emissions" that still produce carbon pollution, according to the complaint.

"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. Wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air, deadly heat waves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells," said Gov. Gavin Newsom. "California taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill. California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable."

The suit demands that oil companies pay their fair share for: recovery efforts from climate change-induced superstorms and wildfires; protecting people from the health impacts of extreme heat; managing dwindling water supplies in extreme drought; and fortifying infrastructure and homes against sea level rise and coastal and inland flooding.

The lawsuit also seeks to prohibit oil companies from engaging in further pollution and destruction of California communities and natural resources, and order the industry to immediately stop its ongoing efforts to deceive or misinform about their "catastrophic impacts."

In a statement to NPR, the American Petroleum Institute defended oil and gas companies.

"This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of California taxpayer resources," the statement said.

Shell issued a similar statement, saying the courtroom is not the right venue to address climate change.

"Smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress," a spokesperson told NPR.

The other companies did not issue immediate responses.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Getty Images