In a major move against the fossil fuel industry, the state of California filed a lawsuit against five oil companies and their representative trade group on Friday, September 15, 2023. The suit, lodged by California Attorney General Rob Bonta in San Francisco superior court, alleges that Exxon Mobil (NYSE:), Shell (LON:), BP (NYSE:), ConocoPhillips (NYSE:), Chevron (NYSE:) and the American Petroleum Institute engaged in a decades-long disinformation campaign to conceal the link between fossil fuel production and climate change.
The legal action follows a wave of similar climate litigation nationwide, but California’s entry into this arena could mark a significant turning point. The lawsuit seeks to establish an abatement fund financed by the defendants to cover future damages from climate-related disasters. It also demands that the oil companies and their trade group contribute towards the costs of damage from extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.
The complaint argues that the alleged cover-up has been ongoing since at least the 1970s and has hindered public response to climate change, escalating extreme natural disasters and accumulating tens of billions of dollars in recovery costs.
Given the frequency and scale of extreme weather events in California, the oil companies could face substantial damages if they lose the case. Korey Silverman-Roati, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, suggested that California’s involvement sends a strong signal to other jurisdictions that this is a viable case, potentially motivating more states, cities, and counties to file similar suits.
The timing of this lawsuit is notable as it follows an April Supreme Court ruling that denied five oil companies’ appeal to have similar cases heard in federal rather than state court. This decision increases the likelihood that the California suit will remain at the state level.
Despite these allegations, the defendants have denied any wrongdoing and argue that the lawsuit is politically motivated. Chevron stated that climate change requires an international policy response rather than fragmented litigation. The American Petroleum Institute echoed this sentiment, labeling the lawsuit a distraction and a waste of taxpayer resources.
The California lawsuit mirrors the legal model of past litigation against opioid and tobacco companies, which were accused of falsely advertising their products as safe. This lawsuit could potentially set a new precedent for holding industries accountable for their contribution to climate change.
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