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California sues 5 major oil companies, accuses them of deceiving public over the risks of fossil fuel use

By Caroll Alvarado, CNN

(CNN) — The state of California is suing the oil companies BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips and their trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, over what the state says is a long-standing pattern of deceiving the public over the risks associated with fossil fuels and causing billions of dollars in damage to communities and the environment, according to a complaint filed Friday.

The lawsuit, which was filed by the state’s Attorney General Rob Bonta in San Francisco County Superior Court, claims the defendants have created a public nuisance, damaged natural resources and state property and have violated California law by misleading state residents with false advertising and misleading environmental marketing.

Several states and cities including Rhode Island, Baltimore and Honolulu have filed similar complaints against oil companies, but California is now the largest economy to file a lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry, according to a news release from Attorney General Bonta’s office.

According to the 135-page complaint, the state claims all five major oil companies have known, since at least the 1960s, burning fossil fuels would warm the planet and change the climate, but have instead downplayed the risk of burning fossil fuels, which has resulted in damaging wildfires, unclean air, deadly heat waves and record-breaking droughts, and cost the state billions of dollars.

The lawsuit claims the American Petroleum Institute was initially warned about the severe climate change they were causing in 1968 after receiving a report from the Stanford Research Institute, which it hired to investigate the state of research on environmental pollutants such as carbon dioxide.

“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,” the report cited in the complaint read.

The complaint also points to a 1978 internal Exxon memo as proof the oil company was aware of the looming consequences.

“[P]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical,” the memo read, according to the complaint.

To deal with the ongoing and future climate consequences of pollution linked to fossil fuel use, the state is seeking to create an abatement fund to be funded at least in part by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Funds would be used to pay for climate change adaptation efforts and future damage caused by climate change, according to the complaint.

“For more than 50 years, Big Oil has been lying to us — covering up the fact that they’ve long known how dangerous the fossil fuels they produce are for our planet,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom in the Attorney General Office’s news release announcing the civil suit.

“California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for billions of dollars in damages — wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air, deadly heat waves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells. With this lawsuit, California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable and deliver the justice our people deserve.”

The lawsuit also accuses all five oil companies of lying about their commitment and efforts to transition to cleaner energy, instead promoting the use of fossil fuels even though they’re aware of the devastating consequences it will cause the environment.

“Shell claims online that it aims to become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050, and that it is ‘tackling climate change.’ However, Shell’s CEO told the BBC on July 6, 2023, that cutting oil and gas production would be ‘dangerous and irresponsible,’” Bonta said in a news release Saturday.

In a statement to CNN, Shell spokesperson Anna Arata said the company agrees “action is needed now on climate change” and it will “continue to reduce our emissions and help customers reduce theirs,” but added the company does not believe the courtroom is the right place to address climate change.

American Petroleum Institute Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Ryan Meyers told CNN he believes their efforts over the past two decades demonstrate the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable and reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while “substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint.”

“This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of California taxpayer resources. Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system,” Meyers added.

When reached, BP spokesperson Josh Hicks said the company does not have anything to add at this time.

In an emailed statement, a Chevron spokesperson said “Climate change is a global problem that requires a coordinated international policy response, not piecemeal litigation for the benefit of lawyers and politicians. California has long been a leading promoter of oil and gas development. Its local courts have no constructive or constitutionally permissible role in crafting global energy policy.”

CNN also reached out to ExxonMobil but did not immediately receive a response.

The news release from Bonta’s office states the lawsuit’s purpose is to provide “injunctive relief to both protect California’s natural resources from pollution, impairment, and destruction as well as to prevent the companies from making any further false or misleading statements about the contribution of fossil fuel combustion to climate change; damages; and penalties.”

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