California sues world’s biggest oil companies over climate change deception

The state is seeking a fund to pay for future climate-related damages it says the fossil fuel industry saw coming decades ago|

The state of California filed a major lawsuit late Friday against the world’s biggest oil companies alleging they misled the public about the risks of their products, which have fueled a climate crisis and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage to communities.

In a 135-page complaint, Attorney General Rob Bonta outlined what his office considers years of deceit around the central role fossil fuels have played in driving climate change and the consequent sea level rise, drought, wildfires, and extreme storms and heat that have increasingly battered Californians.

“These extremes are the products of climate change, and climate change is the product of widespread combustion of fossil fuels,” the filing reads. “Oil and gas company executives have known for decades that reliance on fossil fuels would cause these catastrophic results, but they suppressed that information from the public and policymakers by actively pushing out disinformation on the topic. Their deception caused a delayed societal response to global warming. And their misconduct has resulted in tremendous costs to people, property, and natural resources, which continue to unfold each day.”

California is seeking the creation of an abatement fund, financed by the defendants, to pay for future climate-related damages and community resilience adaptations.

It’s the latest in a wave of civil climate accountability lawsuits across the country. More than 40 states and municipalities have filed similar cases, including eight California cities and counties that brought some of the first such U.S. climate lawsuits in 2017 and 2018, which are now proceeding through state court.

California following suit has particular significance, however.

“California's entry into this fight as the largest geographic entity and the largest economy to take on Big Oil provides unprecedented momentum,” Bonta told The Press Democrat on Saturday.

The decision was in part a result of “my office asking ourselves this question every day: ‘What else can we do to meet the challenge,’” he said.

“As climate change worsens, we see it before our very eyes. Hot is getting hotter. Wet is getting wetter. Dry is getting drier — extreme weather, wildfires, super-storms, drought. We need to do more.”

California’s case targets Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron, some of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, as well as the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group. The complaint documents the fossil fuel industry’s knowledge of climate change and its potential effects going back to the 1960s. It accuses the companies of then launching a concerted campaign to deny or downplay the connection to their products and muddle the science and public understanding around the issue, which has become a defining crisis of the 21st century. Through greenwashing, the lawsuit claims, the industry’s misdirection continues to this day.

In a statement to the New York Times, Ryan Meyers, general counsel for the American Petroleum Institute called the litigation an “ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry” and “nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations.”

Fossil fuel defendants have tried to have many of the climate lawsuits moved from state to federal courts where experts say companies believe they’ll have a better chance of prevailing. So far, those efforts have been rebuffed with the Supreme Court declining to hear appeals on the issue in a handful of cases earlier this year.

Bonta said the high court’s ruling was a factor in the timing of the state’s filing.

Last month, a climate lawsuit filed by a group of young environmental activists against the state of Montana scored what was described as a major victory when a judge ruled state agencies were violating plaintiffs’ constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment by green-lighting fossil fuel development.

California is a major oil and gas producing state but has also set ambitious policy goals to cut emissions and has broadly been a leader on climate action.

“There's a lot of paths forward, and everyone has something that they can do,” Bonta said. “We use the tools that we have. We’re the Attorney General’s Office of the state of California. We enforce the law, and we sue on behalf of the people of California when the facts of the law lead us to a place where it's appropriate to do so and that's why it led us where we are.”

You can reach Staff Writer and Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or

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