Tropical Storm Hilary in California

A man runs past a fallen tree amid Tropical Storm Hilary on August 21, 2023 in San Diego, California.

(Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

'A Watershed Moment': California Sues Big Oil Over Decades of Climate Destruction

"California's move is an unmistakable sign that the wave of climate lawsuits against Big Oil will keep growing and that these polluters' days of escaping accountability for their lies are numbered."

The state of California on Friday filed suit against ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron, accusing the five oil and gas giants of a decadeslong campaign to mislead the public about the threat fossil fuels pose to the climate.

The lawsuit makes California the largest economy on the planet to take legal action against fossil fuel companies over their efforts to deceive the world about their destructive—and immensely profitable—business model. California is also a major producer of oil and gas.

"This has been a multi-decade, ongoing campaign to seek endless profits at the expense of our planet, our people, and the greedy corporations and individuals need to be held accountable," California Attorney General Rob Bonta toldThe New York Times in an interview on Friday. "That's where we come in."

With its new civil lawsuit, filed in a San Francisco court, California joins Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and other states that have sued the fossil fuel industry over its role in massive climate damages. Dozens of municipalities, including several in California, have also filed lawsuits against oil giants.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. has experienced a record-breaking 23 billion-dollar extreme weather disasters this year, from deadly flooding in California to the catastrophic wildfire that killed nearly 100 people in Maui, Hawaii—which is also suing Big Oil.

Cities and states representing 25% of the U.S. population are currently taking part in some kind of climate-related legal action against the fossil fuel industry, according to Fossil Free Media, and the Biden Justice Department is facing growing pressure to join the fight.

In an effort to improve their chances of winning the mounting legal battles, fossil fuel giants have tried to move climate liability lawsuits from state to federal court—but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their appeals earlier this year.

"Just like tobacco and opioid companies, the oil and gas industry will have to face the evidence of its deception in court."

Richard Wiles, the president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a statement Saturday that "California's decision to take Big Oil companies to court is a watershed moment in the rapidly expanding legal fight to hold major polluters accountable for decades of climate lies."

"Whether it's fires, droughts, extreme heat, or sea-level rise, Californians have been living in a climate emergency caused by the fossil fuel industry, and now the state is taking decisive action to make those polluters pay," said Wiles. "As similar cases proceed toward trial, California's move is an unmistakable sign that the wave of climate lawsuits against Big Oil will keep growing and that these polluters' days of escaping accountability for their lies are numbered. Just like tobacco and opioid companies, the oil and gas industry will have to face the evidence of its deception in court."

California's lawsuit, which also names the American Petroleum Institute as a defendant, comes days after The Wall Street Journalpublished a front-page story based on previously unreported documents that detail Exxon's behind-closed-doors effort to cast doubt on climate science after 2006, when the company publicly acknowledged the link between fossil fuels and climate change for the first time.

Exxon and other oil companies have been aware of the connection since the 1970s.

"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," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. "It has been decades of damage and deception."

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

The Times noted Friday that California's lawsuit aims to establish "a fund that would be used to pay for recovery from extreme weather events and mitigation and adaptation efforts across the state."

"The lawsuit claims that California has already spent tens of billions of dollars paying for climate disasters, and expects costs to rise significantly in the years ahead," the Times added.

Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, said Saturday that with its lawsuit, "California just kicked open the door for every city and state in America to sue the fossil fuel industry for climate damages."

"After this summer of brutal heat waves and climate disasters, I think the public is hungry for a way to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the damage they've done," said Henn. "Big Oil knew, they lied, and now it's time to make them pay."

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