California is suing Big Oil, accusing them of climate change ‘deception’

Pumps in an oil field near McKittrick, Calif.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning. It’s Monday, Sept. 18. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

  • The state takes on the oil industry with an ambitious lawsuit
  • Los Angeles could establish an independent redistricting commission
  • The man behind the world’s best restaurant
  • And here’s today’s e-newspaper

California is suing Big Oil, accusing them of climate change ‘deception’

California is no stranger to fighting climate change with legal battles. But late last week, state officials announced a truly heavyweight match.

Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta has filed a lawsuit against five major oil companies and their trade association, alleging their involvement in “a decades-long campaign of deception and creating statewide climate change-related harms in California.”


Bonta said Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP — along with the American Petroleum Institute (API) — have long known “that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment.”

“Enough is enough,” Bonta said in a statement. “With our lawsuit, California becomes the largest geographic area and the largest economy to take these giant oil companies to court.”

The 135-page complaint presents several pieces of evidence the state says points to oil companies’ longtime understanding of the effect their products have on the environment.

The suit notes API received a report on environmental pollutants from the Stanford Research Institute in 1968, which stated: “Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and ... there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”

In response to that and other scientific evidence linking fossil fuels to global warming, Big Oil orchestrated disinformation campaigns, the state alleges, “to plant doubt about the reality of climate change in an effort to maintain consumer demand for their fossil fuel products and their large profits.”

What is California hoping to accomplish with the lawsuit? As Times staff writer Louis Sahagún reported:


“Bonta is seeking to create a nuisance abatement fund to finance climate mitigation and adaptation efforts; injunctive relief to protect California’s natural resources from pollution, impairment and destruction; and to prevent the companies from making any further false or misleading statements about the contribution of fossil fuel combustion to climate change.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom called out Big Oil in a statement for “decades of damage and deception.”

“Wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air, deadly heat waves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells,” he said. “California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill.”

In a statement, API Senior Vice President and General Counsel Ryan Meyers called the state’s complaint “a distraction … and an enormous waste of California taxpayer resources.”

“Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide,” he said, “not the court system.”

Sahagun notes that a “growing number of high-profile cases in state court helped pave the way” for this major legal action from Bonta, including the $246-billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998 and a $350-million settlement with manufacturers of lead paint in 2019.

As for how much money state officials are seeking from Big Oil, that’s to be determined for now.


Bonta told The Times: “It is going to be a very, very large number.”

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