Michael Hiltzik: The oil companies lied to us about climate change. California should sue them into the ground

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The oil companies want you to see California's newly filed lawsuit over their decades of deceit about global warming as a "hypocritical ... Hollywood-and-foreign-billionaire-funded" effort to "starve the state of energy and hamper the economy."

Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

The targets of the lawsuit, filed Friday in San Francisco County Superior Court, are five major oil companies and their subsidiaries. "From extreme heat to drought and water shortages, the climate crisis they have caused is undeniable," Attorney General Rob Bonta said after the filing. "It is time they pay to abate the harm they have caused."

The state's lawsuit joins others filed by at least 18 municipalities, seven states and the District of Columbia from New York to the West Coast in recent years in state and federal courts.

The industry asserts that the litigation is futile, pointing to scattered adverse rulings by judges here and there. But all those cases are still pending.

Big Oil is right to be concerned, for if even one crosses the judicial finish line, the path could be cleared for a massive financial reckoning in which the industry is forced to pony up for programs of mitigation and abatement. Think of the multibillion-dollar reckoning imposed on the tobacco industry, and multiply by infinity.


The oil lobby also points out that the real blame for petroleum-driven global warming lies with us, the public, and our unquenched demand for gasoline-powered cars and fossil fuels of every other description.

That's fair, as far as it goes, but it didn't save the cigarette companies after their role in the promotion of smoking through marketing and the suppression of scientific evidence of links between smoking and diseases was exposed. The harvest included a 25-year, $246 billion settlement reached in 1998 between the companies and state governments.

So let's take a close look at the California case, which names Exxon Mobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Chevron and BP, along with the American Petroleum Institute, as defendants.

The state lawsuit doesn't blame the oil industry for creating global warming, exactly. Rather, it seeks to hold the companies responsible for lying about it — specifically, for suppressing what its own scientists were saying about the consequences of burning fossil fuels.


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