California Sues 5 Major Oil Companies

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A historic action could make companies that made record profits in 2022, pay for the damage they caused for decades. 

This Friday, the state of California once again took its place in history as a pioneer among those who stand up to the powerful. It did so with its own power, with an economy that would place it fifth in the world if it was an independent country. 

Once again. 

On Friday, California sued Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron in San Francisco County Superior Court, through its Attorney General Rob Bonta. 

These are the five largest oil companies in the world. 

The lawsuit is historic due to its magnitude, and accuses them of a campaign of deceit that goes back decades of continuous, ruthless, systematic and destructive denial of the realities of climate change and the damage that fossil fuels have caused and continue to cause to humanity. 

The full legal complaint can be read here. 

As if that was not enough, the state is also suing the association that represents them in public, the American Petroleum Institute. 

The upcoming trial will draw the world’s public attention to the catastrophes we suffer as a consequence of the actions, or rather, the inactions of those responsible, and will show them from the dock of the accused. The lawsuit is justified because California suffers more from these consequences than other states. 

But, why now? Perhaps because the consequences of climate change are now visible, and anyone who denies them is seen as an accomplice. 

California Governor, Gavin Newsom said: “These are things that we imagined we might be experiencing in 2040 and 2050, but that have been brought into the present moment, and the time for accountability is now.” – as he announced the environmental damage lawsuit. 

The state government says: 

“California is already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate, including observable shifts in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as more frequent and severe heat waves and wildfires, more variable precipitation, and a succession of droughts that have increased as temperatures warm.” It also mentions flooding, rising sea levels, and now, Tropical Cyclone Hilary, the first on the Pacific coast since records began, which caused losses of $500 million and the closure of the flooded Death Valley National Park, the driest place in the world until now. 

Other consequences were damage to crops, water shortages due to droughts and the loss of biodiversity, that is, the variety of living beings that inhabit the planet. 

In addition, the cost, the tens of billions of dollars that the state has paid so far to repair the damages, which are only a preview of what is to come. Huge sums that mean the diversion of resources that could be dedicated to the welfare of the population. Instead, they were used to satisfy the thirst for profit of the oil companies. 

A thirst for profit that makes them responsible. 

A thirst for profit that was successful. Because in 2022 the companies made record profits. 

Exxon Mobil announced profits of 59.1 billion dollars, a sum never reached before by any private company. Shell, 39.9 billion, more than in any other of its 115 years; Chevron, 36.5 billion, BP (formerly British Petroleum) 27.7 billion and Conoco Phillips 17.7 billion dollars. 

One of the sources of their profits is the Russia-Ukraine war, which allowed them to dictate unprecedented prices. Drivers in our country paid in 2022 an average of $5 per gallon of gasoline to get to their jobs. They profit from the war and the workers pay. 

Loaded with cash, they use the profits to reward shareholders with higher dividends and share buybacks, for a total of 110 billion in 2022. Instead of using these exorbitant sums to develop alternatives to their harmful products, they downplayed the dangers, promoted fossil fuels as if they were safe, and took almost all the money home. 

Almost all but derisory sums of money for false advertising to pretend that they care and develop safer products. 

At the same time, they funded bogus studies and overturned legislation that would have protected the population in multiple states. 

Over the decades they said, “Scientific uncertainty and the evolution of energy systems indicate that policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions beyond ‘no regrets’ measures may be premature.” 

“There is no need to take drastic action immediately, as many scientists agree that there is sufficient time to better understand the climate system.” 

And “there is no conclusive, or even strongly suggestive, scientific evidence that human activities are significantly affecting sea level.” 

Oil companies were not the first. In fact, they have been following the model of the tobacco companies, which for decades successfully suppressed the evidence that tobacco kills. 

But we know how the tobacco companies ended up. In 1998, 46 states imposed an agreement on them to pay $246 billion over 25 years. 

Governor Newsom rightly said: 

“For more than 50 years, large oil companies have been lying to us, hiding the fact that they have known for a long time how dangerous the fossil fuels they produce are to our planet. It’s been decades of damage and deception.” 

  • Defendants Are Substantially Responsible for Causing and Accelerating Climate Change
  • Defendants Went to Great Lengths to Understand the Dangers Associated with Fossil Fuel Products, and Either Knew or Should Have Known of Those Dangers 
  • Defendants Did Not Disclose Known Harms Associated with the Intended Use of Fossil Fuel Products, and Instead Affirmatively Concealed Those Harms by Engaging in a Campaign of Deception to Increase the Use of Those Products 
  • Defendants Could Have Chosen to Facilitate, and Be Part of, a Lower-Carbon Future, but Instead Chose Corporate Profits and Continued Deception 
  • Defendants’ Internal Actions Demonstrate Their Awareness of the Impacts of Climate Change and Their Intent to Continue to Profit from the Unabated Use of Fossil Fuel Products
  • Defendants’ Actions Have Slowed the Development of Alternative Energy Sources and Exacerbated the Costs of Adapting to and Mitigating the Adverse Impacts of the Climate Crisis
  • Defendants Continue to Deceive California Consumers Through Misleading Advertisements That Portray Defendants as ClimateFriendly Energy Companies and Obscure Their Role in Causing Climate Change

They promoted fossil fuel products as “Green,” “Clean,” or otherwise good for the environment. 

Finally, the effects of the defendants’ deception continue; the state has suffered, is suffering and will suffer damages for the defendants’ illicit conduct. 

If the lawsuit is won and its requirements are accepted, these would be the state’s main demands: 

To compel the defendants to reduce the ongoing public nuisance their conduct has caused in California, “including by establishing and contributing to a fund to pay their costs”. Compel them to “protect and/or prevent further pollution, deterioration, and destruction of California’s natural resources.” 

To prohibit them from taking “any false action or making misleading statements, as well as any act or practice that constitutes unfair competition. 

Other states and local jurisdictions had already sued the oil companies, without much public attention. In California, this includes Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Marin counties and the cities of San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Oakland. 

But this is the most significant step ever taken against the oil companies, given the size of California’s economy and the weight of its 40 million people. 

Attorney General Bonta promised: “We will face the moment and fight tirelessly on behalf of all Californians, particularly those who live in environmental justice communities.” 

California is leading the way and the rest of the states will eventually follow it. 

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