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California sues big oil

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

AG says oil and gas producers are liable for climate change but it is uncertain how claims will fare in court

By: Katherine OBrien Field

Staff Writer, Copy Editor

An oil horse off the side of the SR-14 Freeway in Santa Clarita, Calif. (Andrew Gonzalez | Valley Star)

California has filed a complaint against the oil industry, claiming they caused climate change, knew their products were harmful and denied climate science, thus committing fraud upon the public.

Filed in San Francisco Superior Court, the suit names six defendants: Exxon, Shell, Chevron, B.P., Phillips Conoco and trade industry group American Petroleum Institute.

“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 a press release from the governor’s office. “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. California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable.”

The state asserts the oil defendants caused and accelerated climate change, alleging their oil and gas products release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the earth’s atmosphere, which causes a greenhouse gas effect, which significantly elevates the earth’s temperature.

California alleges Big Oil knew about the harm they were causing but sought to hide the science and allowed the problem to grow worse. The damage from global warming includes rising sea levels, diminishing ice caps and oceanic acidification, all of which have been accelerated in the past five years, the state warns. Defendants allegedly mounted a disinformation campaign for decades to dispute climate science, to cast doubt in the minds of the public and by so doing, delayed change in transitioning to a lower carbon environment.

Climate change has allegedly resulted in specific harms to human life including extreme heat, drought, extreme wildfire, public health, extreme storms and flooding, damage to agriculture and rising sea levels leading to coastal erosion.

The state says the oil producers created a public nuisance, impaired natural resources, and acted negligently for failing to warn the public of known harm.

“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,” stated Attorney General Rob Bonta. “It is time they pay to abate the harm they have caused.”

In its filing, the State requests abatement for the nuisance of CO2 emissions and payment for the cost of the damage already committed, and to guard against future harm. The documents express that offending companies should abandon their campaign of denial, cease advertising their products as environmentally friendly and instead warn of known dangers. The State says defendants should be fined for past harms and requests punitive damages to punish defendants for their actions, plus costs and attorneys’ fees.

Yet, it is uncertain how the state’s case will fare in court. A prior complaint was filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. This earlier federal court pleading made similar arguments and also requested, among other things, an abatement fund. However, this complaint was dismissed in 2018 on the grounds that such matters were related of foreign and domestic policy.

“The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a District Court judge or jury in a public nuisance case,” said District Court Judge William Alsup.

The recent 2023 filing has been filed in San Francisco Superior Court and not in a federal court. But the state will be faced with this same argument, that the issue is of national import and should be decided by government policy, rather than through the court.

Further, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, only “13 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption is provided by renewable sources. Fossil fuels – petroleum, natural gas and coal – accounted for about 81 percent of total U.S. primary energy production in 2022.”

Energy policy is a matter of national concern and presents a hurdle for a court to enjoin an activity that accounts for 81 percent of energy sources across the U.S. It is a cannon of jurisprudence that the court may not issue an unenforceable ruling.


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