September 20, 2023

By Ramona du Houx

Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta announced on September 16, 2023 that California is suing Big Oil for more than 50 years of deception, cover-up, and damage that have cost California taxpayers billions of dollars in health and environmental impacts.

The state’s lawsuit is against five of the biggest oil companies in the world, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and the American Petroleum Institute, for spearheading a misinformation campaign that has enabled them to rake in millions at the expense of the environment and public health.

Speaking from the stage at the 15th annual New York Climate Week, Gov. Newsom did not mince words when he called the climate crisis a fossil fuel crisis and pledged to illuminate fossil fuel companies’ deceit. His clear message: it’s time for transparency, accountability, and climate action. The text of the lawsuit is here.

“With this historic lawsuit, California has given a roadmap to other states to step forward and seek justice for millions of people who have suffered from fossil fuel companies polluting our air, water and soil. Big Oil has been fueling the climate crisis for far too long,” said Dominic Frongillo, Elected Officials to Protect America’s Executive Director and Co-Founder. “Big Oil raked in over $200 billion last year while gas prices skyrocketed. Meanwhile, people suffered from escalating climate disasters and health issues caused by dirty fossil fuels. Elected Officials to Protect America is grateful for Governor Newsom’s important steps towards California leading our nation in keeping fossil fuels in the ground.”

Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) is a network of current and former elected officials who are committed to solving the climate crisis, ensuring environmental justice, and protecting lands and waters. EOPA has a national climate change plan wherein EOPA lists the steps that must be taken to transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy. The letter that asks Congress and the President to take action has been signed by over 1,000 elected officials from across the country. The letter also urges President Biden to declare a Climate Emergency.

“Oil executives deceived the public for decades about how fossil fuels are hurting our health and destroying our planet, protecting their own profits while sticking taxpayers with the bill for the damages. They have made billions while people, especially in environmental justice communities, have been burdened with health issues caused by their operations. Too many have died. California is leading the nation and world with this lawsuit that’s long overdue, ” said Christian Brock, CEO Elected Officials to Protect America.

California is the fifth largest economy in the world and the fifth larges oil producing state. Reverberations and actions around the globe are likely to happen because of the lawsuit. Yet Governor Newsom isn’t the first to seek justice. He joins five other states that are suing Big Oil. In fact there are than two dozen U.S. cities, counties and states suing the oil industry over climate change. With the list growing with California the momentum is growing.

“People across the state, especially those who suffer the most from the injustices that Big Oil has perpetrated over the decades are celebrating Gov. Newsom’s historic lawsuit against Big Oil. Within a year CA has had drought, heatwaves, fires, and massive flooding mainly because fossil fuel companies have chosen profits over people. Their products kill over 34,000 in my state prematurely” said Alex Walker-Griffin Mayor of Hercules, Elected Officials to Protect America – California Leadership Council Co-chair. “It’s time everyone in CA is given the opportunity to breathe fresh air, drink clean water and live on land that isn’t polluted. It’s time for justice.”

CA oil wells abate schools, playgrounds, homes and other public places. There is a law to limit new wells to be further than 2,500 feet but oil interests have pushed a referendum that will appear on the ballot in order to stop the health and safety measure law.

CA joins 5 states suing Big Oil

Most of the cases hinge on local statutes and common-law torts first widely used in consumer-protection lawsuits from the 1960s and more recently in litigation over tobacco and pharmaceuticals. Key to these laws is that companies can be held accountable for failing to warn consumers of known potential hazards. In the lawsuits, states and cities are making the case that the fossil fuel industry’s failure to warn consumers about its products’ contributions to the climate crisis is already negatively impacting communities

Local and state governments that are suing want to hold the major oil companies responsible for the costs of responding to disasters that scientists are able to attribute to climate disruptions caused mostly by the fossil fuel industry. Several of the plaintiffs accuse the companies of lying to the public about their products’ risks, as documents have been discovered that attest to this fact.

In 2018, Rhode Island brought a climate change lawsuit against 21 major fossil fuel companies, the first state in the country to do so. The State’s lawsuit alleges that the companies failed to adequately warn of the foreseeable risks posed by their products and the consequences of use;

“In Rhode Island we know when high tides correspond with storms that there will be flooding. We know people will suffer from the air borne pollution fossil fuel companies continue to produce. We know environmental justice communities will suffer the most,” said Meghan Elizabeth Kallman, Senator, Rhode Island District 15, Pawtucket/Providence. “Because we know these truths our state is leading the way with a historic first in the nation lawsuit against fossil fuel companies that knowingly concealed the fact that use of their products leads to climate change and its catastrophic consequences to the State and its residents, economy, ecosystem, and infrastructure. We applaud CA for joining this fight.”

In 2019, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey today sued Exxon Mobil Corporation (Exxon), the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, for deceptive advertising to consumers and for misleading investors about the risks to Exxon’s business posed by fossil fuel-driven climate change—including systemic financial risk.

“For decades, oil and gas companies have knowingly profited off the destruction of the planet and misled the public about their knowledge,” said Cobi Frongillo, Franklin Town Councilor, Massachusetts, Elected Officials to Protect America Leadership Council. “I am proud to live in a state that has led the charge for holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their climate lies.”

In September of 2020, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong filed a lawsuit in state court against Exxon Mobil alleging the nation’s largest oil and gas company misled the public on climate change for decades and that the company’s actions left the more than 600 miles of coastline state, ill-prepared for sea-level rise and more intense storms.

“For too long, Big Oil has deceived, distracted and misled the public about the dangers of climate change. In short, they’ve chased profits at the expense of our planet and our health. I applaud California for holding these companies accountable, just as Connecticut is doing in its lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, said William Haskell, Connecticut State Senate, District 26, Elected Officials to Protect America Leadership Council. “Three years ago, our tireless Attorney General filed a suit against the nation’s largest oil and gas company for promoting climate disinformation and subjecting our coastline to the dangers of climate change. From coast to coast, state leaders are sending the message that clean air and water will finally be prioritized over corporate greed.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison state litigation argues that the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil and Koch Industries misled consumers for years about the consequences of burning oil and gas. According to the lawsuit, “Minnesota has already experienced billions of dollars of economic harm due to climate change.”

“In 2020, our state’s leaders understood that we needed to take action or these same fossil fuel companies will continue to rake in billions without regard to the health and welfare of our people. We’ve suffered from floods, extreme weather and air pollution because of the actions over decades from these fossil fuel companies. I’m proud our state’s leadership took action and heartened that California has joined in this just fight we must win for humanity. The world cannot afford to let corporations put us all in jeopardy from the climate crisis,” said Boyd Morson, Brooklyn Park Councilmember, Minnesota.

In 2020, Attorney General Kathy Jennings announced that Delaware is suing 31 fossil fuel companies to hold them accountable for decades of deception about the role their products play in causing climate change, “the harm that is causing in Delaware, and for the mounting costs of surviving those harms.”

“For too long, there has been a concerted effort by some in the fossil fuel industry to mislead the public about the science behind climate change and its devastating effects,” said U.S. Senator Tom Carper, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in a statement at the time of the announcement. “While some companies have since seen the error of their ways, and are now working in good faith to find climate solutions, others have poured millions, maybe billions of dollars into hiding the truth about climate change. The people of Delaware see the effects of climate change in Delaware every day. Families and businesses in our state are already experiencing the environmental and economic consequences of the worsening climate crisis. It is unfortunate that litigation is necessary to drag those remaining bad actors into the light, but my hope is that this litigation will hold those actors accountable.”

In 1982 Exxon predicted the exact amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that would be in the atmosphere in 2019—415 parts per million, the highest level in human history, largely as a result of increasing fossil fuel use. Exxon also recognized decades ago that reducing emissions and maintaining a safe climate would require “sharply curtailing the use of fossil fuels.” According to internal Exxon documents, in 1980, an expert retained by Exxon presented findings to Exxon that the projected rise in global temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels would have “major economic consequences,” even “bring[ing] world economic growth to a halt.”