California’s lawsuit against some of the world’s largest oil companies is an important move by the world’s fifth-largest economy to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for decades of climate denial and deception.
The suit filed last week against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute trade group seeks to hold them liable for misleading the public about products they knew were harmful and make them pay to deal with the escalating costs of fighting the climate crisis in California.
But it’s notable that the state is also trying to prevent oil companies from continuing to make false or misleading statements about their role in overheating the planet. Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s action comes after a series of similar lawsuits by other states, cities and counties over the last six years. If successful, these cases could force the most powerful industry on Earth to curb its decades-long campaign of deceiving the public about climate change, its causes and solutions.
That’s important because the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation tactics are ever-evolving, morphing from outright denial years ago to more sophisticated greenwashing today that misleads consumers by portraying oil companies and their products as environmentally sustainable. And its climate deception remains one of the biggest barriers to action to cut planet-warming emissions, because it muddles public perception and gives politicians cover to stick with policies that prolong reliance on fossil fuels.
The state’s 135-page complaint lays out in exacting detail what is a story of oil industry obfuscation of its scientific knowledge and role in fueling the climate crisis. Oil companies knew as far back as the 1950s that their products endangered the planet, the complaint says, but instead of warning the public, they engaged in a disinformation campaign targeting the science underpinning climate change and solutions needed to address it. The suit cites examples from internal studies and documents, advertising, marketing and the industry’s use of front groups, fringe scientists and public relations campaigns to manufacture doubt in the minds of the public.
The lawsuit is a remarkable development not only because California is the largest economy yet to take the industry to court over its deception, but also because the state was built on oil extraction a century ago and remains a top producer to this day.
It seems promising because it relies on well-established statutes, including laws against public nuisances, misleading advertising and unfair business practices, and a legal approach that has been used successfully in the past to hold powerful industries liable. Just look at what happened after litigation against purveyors of tobacco, opioids and lead paint.
This litigation can also help erode a false narrative perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry that has been astoundingly successful. The narrative argues that consumers should be looking inward to solve the climate crisis. For example, it urges them to reduce their carbon footprints to allow oil companies to continue to sell these polluting products for as long as possible.
It seems laughable now to blame consumers that were victimized by harmful products like cigarettes or lead-based paint rather than the industries who peddled them, knowing full well the risks to society. But we’re still not at that point of recognizing how long we have been misled and harmed by oil and gas companies that know better but want to keep making money.
The American Petroleum Institute responded to the lawsuit with deflection, calling it part of an “ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers.” But it did little to dispute the substance of the allegations, as has been the case for years. The industry has tried to fight those suits with procedural delays and unsuccessful attempts to move the cases to more sympathetic federal courts, rather than with facts.
This suit is just one of the efforts California is using to force more transparency and accountability from the oil industry. The Legislature recently passed a pair of bills to require big companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and climate-related financial risks, which Gov. Gavin Newsom said he will sign. Also on the governor’s desk is legislation that would reduce incentives for oil well operators to bail on their cleanup obligations and leave billions in costs to taxpayers.
It will be an important day if the fossil fuel industry, despite its immense power, is finally forced to tell the truth and to pay for the harm its products have caused to every living thing on the planet.
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