Why California is Taking Big Oil to Court — and Why it Matters

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Original article by Dana Drugmand republished from DeSmog.

The sweeping complaint details the fossil fuel industry’s coordinated campaign to deceive the public about the dangers of fossil fuels.

Canadian wildfire 2023
Canadian wildfire 2023

“This is a historic moment,” Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general, told reporters on Sunday, as he stood alongside Gov. Gavin Newsom on the opening day of Climate Week NYC.  The pair of California leaders were there to discuss the lawsuit the state had recently filed against Big Oil on behalf of the people of California to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the effects of climate change.

While it is not the first to seek accountability from the fossil fuel industry for its role in fueling the climate crisis, California’s lawsuit stands out in several ways: The state has a reputation for leading on climate policy; it is on the frontlines of climate change; it is a producer of oil and gas; and it is, to date, the most politically and economically powerful state to sue Big Oil.

More than three dozen states and cities are suing oil, gas, and coal companies over their role in causing climate change. But California is the first fossil-fuel-producing state to do so. That sends a clear political message that the industry “is less powerful and trusted than before,” Nick Caleb, a climate and energy attorney with Breach Collective, told DeSmog. It may signal that fossil fuel companies do not have much of a future powering the state’s economy, Caleb said. 

California is facing major economic and humanitarian costs from the climate emergency. The state, with a population of nearly 40 million people, has racked up several billions of dollars in climate-related damages on top of the tragic costs to human lives. Some insurance companies are backing away from the state due to the outsized risks. 

“It’s incalculable in terms of the dollars, the lives lost, the funerals, and dead bodies in Paradise, California,” Newsom said on Sunday. In 2018, the Camp Fire decimated the northern California community and killed at least 85 people.

“We all know how California has suffered from climate impacts,” Christiana Figueres, one of the key architects of the Paris Agreement, told journalists at a Covering Climate Now conference at Columbia Journalism School in New York City on Thursday. She called California’s lawsuit “a major, major upgrade … in the liabilities and in the reach that climate litigation can have.” 

The lawsuit names five companies — ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips — and one lobby group, the American Petroleum Institute. It asserts that the companies knew about the climate risks associated with burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, yet underplayed them to the public, and it argues that the climate disasters and devastation California is experiencing could have been largely avoided or mitigated were it not for the lies and deceit of the fossil fuel industry. “California is in the throes of a climate crisis,” the case contends.  

The 135-page complaint, filed Friday in superior court in San Francisco, lays out the evidence of the alleged deception in great detail. Bonta called it the “most sweeping complaint thus far.”

“You cannot read it without crawling out of your skin,” Newsom added at Sunday’s press briefing.

Many of the details and revelations are known, but are worth recapping as they explain why major oil companies are facing similar lawsuits from so many  states and municipalities.

A Public Campaign of Deception

First, as the complaint notes, “Defendants have known about the potential warming effects of GHG emissions since as early as the 1950s.” Nuclear physicist Edward Teller warned the oil industry at an API event in 1959 that global warming might melt the polar ice caps and submerge coastal cities. 

In the late 1960s, as the complaint details, the Stanford Research Institute issued reports that accurately predicted the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in 2000. The reports, commissioned by API, further warned of the Antarctic ice cap melt, and explicitly connected CO2 rise to fossil fuel combustion. 

More warnings came from industry scientists in the 1970s, but these were not disseminated publicly. Instead, Exxon realized that legislation affecting its business could take shape and decided to closely monitor the science but not publicly acknowledge or act on it. “In 1979, API and its members, including the Fossil Fuel Defendants, convened a Task Force to monitor and share cutting-edge climate research among members of the oil industry,” the complaint explains. This close assessment of potential climate impacts and climate modeling continued into the 1980s. 

In 1988, an internal Shell report titled “The Greenhouse Effect” further pointed to fossil fuels as the cause of rising CO2 concentrations and warned of the devastating impacts on society.

The very real prospect of legislation and international action to combat climate change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, prompted a U-turn within the industry. The industry shifted tactics “from general research and internal discussion on climate change to a public campaign aimed at deceiving consumers and the public, including the inhabitants of California,” the complaint states. In publications and advertorials, the industry directly contradicted what it had known for decades about the role of fossil fuels in increasing CO2 emissions and temperature rise. During this time the Global Climate Coalition actively worked to undermine the public’s understanding of climate science and even to manipulate the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN’s climate science body.

Exxon and other oil majors also funded “fringe scientists” to peddle their views and  funded dozens of think tanks and front groups to promote climate denial. The complaint calls out a few of these groups, including: the Heritage FoundationHeartland InstituteCompetitive Enterprise InstituteFrontiers of Freedom, and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.

A Conspiracy to “Conceal and Misrepresent”

The California lawsuit does not bring racketeering charges as some recent climate accountability lawsuits have. It does, however, refer to a conspiracy. According to the complaint, the defendants, through their trade associations and front groups like the Global Climate Coalition, “conspired to conceal and misrepresent the known dangers of burning fossil fuels.” While conspiracy is not charged, the lawsuit references it “for the purposes of establishing that California state court is the correct jurisdiction and venue for this case,” Caleb explained. 

“Although the Fossil Fuel Defendants were competitors in the marketplace, they combined and collaborated with each other and with API on this public campaign to misdirect and stifle public knowledge in order to increase sales and protect profits,” the complaint argues. 

The industry’s alleged deception delayed a transition to alternative and cleaner forms of energy and enabled a much greater buildup of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than otherwise would have occurred, the lawsuit argues, adding: “Defendants could have chosen a different path.”

Ben Franta, head of the Climate Litigation Lab at Oxford University and one of the key researchers to uncover evidence of the industry’s early climate change awareness and subsequent efforts to deceive, told DeSmog: “The bottom line is that major fossil fuel companies knew decades ago that their own products, unless replaced with safe energy sources, would cause catastrophic damage in the 21st century. They concealed their knowledge and misled the public about the reality, seriousness, cause, and solutions to the problem in order to keep selling fossil fuels and increase industry profits.” 

API was instrumental to the execution of this plan. The trade association “played a key role in creating climate denialist organizations such as the Global Climate Coalition,” Franta said. 

In response, API called California’s lawsuit part of an “ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits” against the oil and gas industry. 

The Western States Petroleum Association, the main industry lobby for the western region including California, is not a named defendant in the complaint. Franta said API and WSPA have “both played key roles in deceiving the public about climate change and worsening climate damages,” but that “much more research to date has been conducted on API.” 

Nevertheless, “their contributions to climate change are significant and actionable under California law,” Caleb told DeSmog, adding that WSPA “deserves to be held accountable” for greenwashing and deceptive conduct. WSPA has been named as a defendant in a climate lawsuit filed in June by Multnomah County, Oregon, the first such case to do so.  

Industry’s Misleading Behavior Has “Not Stopped”

The complaint says the companies’ “efforts to mislead the public about climate change have not stopped.” In recent years, the oil and gas industry has shifted to prolific greenwashing. It portrays its products as “cleaner” or “low carbon,” and claims the industry is driving climate solutions.

“Just as tobacco companies promoted ‘low-tar’ and ‘light’ cigarettes … so too do Defendants peddle ‘low-carbon’ and ‘emissions-reducing’ fossil fuel products,” the complaint notes.

Yet Big Oil is now retreating on its meager climate commitments and doubling down on oil and gas production, even after raking in record profits in 2022. For instance, in June, Shell announced it would not follow through on its earlier promise to gradually decrease oil production through 2030.

“The fact that they’re still at it, rolling back ambition in real time … is shameful,” Newsom said on Sunday.

“They need to be held accountable. They need to pay for the damage that they’ve caused. They knew, they knew for years,” Bonta added. 

In an emailed statement, a Shell spokesperson said the company’s “position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades”, adding: “We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change.”

ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lawsuit Opens the “Floodgates”

Newsom and Bonta made clear on Sunday that they’re hoping the state’s decision to sue Big Oil could therefore encourage other jurisdictions to do the same. California’s actions on climate have often broken new ground and inspired other states to follow suit — a phenomenon is called the “California effect.” For example, the state has set  increasingly stringent vehicle tailpipe emissions standards, implemented the country’s first economy-wide cap-and-trade program, and has recently passed a first-in-the-nation law requiring large companies to publicly disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, 

Climate lawyers and activists called California’s move to sue Big Oil “historic” and “decisive.”

“The California lawsuit is the most significant litigation against the industry that’s happened yet,” said Steven Donziger, an environmental and human rights attorney who successfully sued Chevron and faced retaliation for it. “All of these lawsuits together collectively can really force the phaseout of the industry. They’re important.”

“California’s lawsuit provides major momentum in the race to protect a livable planet,” Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in an emailed statement. “This case opens a new avenue for California to lead the nation in ending deadly fossil fuels.”

Geoffrey Supran, associate professor of environmental science and policy and director of the Climate Accountability Lab at University of Miami, noted that California “is a bellwether for U.S. environmental action,” and that momentum to hold Big Oil accountable through litigation has been mounting for several years.

“Now that the fifth largest economy in the world has waded in, the floodgates are truly open,” he said.

As a state that still produces oil and gas, however, some say California is still not moving quickly enough to sever ties with the industry it is now suing. Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, said that California “can do a lot more, faster,” noting the state continues to permit fossil gas usage in buildings, has not banned oil and gas drilling, and plans to phase out new gasoline-powered vehicles only by 2035, which is “five years after we need to transition 80 percent of the world away from fossil fuels.”  

Campaign Demands “Polluters Pay”

A new activist campaign called “Make Polluters Pay,” which launched Monday in New York City, with a Times Square billboard and a six-figure digital ad buy and online petition, is supporting California’s call for more climate accountability lawsuits.

The “Make Polluters Pay” campaign billboard in New York’s Time Square on September 18, 2023. Credit: Jamie Henn, Fossil Free Media
The “Make Polluters Pay” campaign billboard in New York’s Time Square on September 18, 2023. Credit: Jamie Henn, Fossil Free Media

“Make Polluters Pay will be the first big public-facing campaign to build support for these climate lawsuits and the broader effort to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the damage they are doing to our health, climate and communities,” Jamie Henn, founder of Fossil Free Media, told DeSmog.

“I think California’s lawsuit is going to turn these climate liability cases into a serious movement that not only excites environmental lawyers, but the public writ large,” he added. “A few hundred million Americans experienced the brutal heat waves and other climate disasters this summer and they’re looking for someone to hold responsible. And when it comes to climate destruction, the answer is clear: it’s Big Oil.”  

Original article by Dana Drugmand republished from DeSmog.

Continue ReadingWhy California is Taking Big Oil to Court — and Why it Matters

‘Time to Make Them Pay’: Internal Docs Further Expose Exxon Efforts to Spread Climate Lies

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Original article by Jake Johnson republished from Common Dreams under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

“Climate change isn’t just a tragedy, it’s a crime,” said one climate campaigner in response to documents reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Previously unreported documents published on the front page of The Wall Street Journal Thursday show that ExxonMobil continued to work behind closed doors to cast doubt on climate science, even after the company publicly acknowledged the link between fossil fuel-driven greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in 2006.

The documents—which detail email exchanges between executives, board meeting conversations, and other company proceedings—reveal that during his tenure as CEO, Rex Tillerson joined other Exxon leaders in questioning “the severity of climate change’s impacts,” the Journal reported.

The company’s scientists, meanwhile, “supported research that questioned the findings of mainstream climate science” despite Exxon’s pledge to stop bankrolling think tanks and other groups peddling climate denial.

After scientists with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm in 2011 about the potentially devastating global impacts of runaway warming, Tillerson told a leading Exxon researcher that the IPCC’s warning was “not credible” and complained about the media’s coverage of the potentially dire scenario, according to documents reviewed by the Journal.

“Tillerson wanted to engage with IPCC ‘to influence [the group], in addition to gathering info,'” the newspaper reported.

Tillerson also dismissed the Paris Climate Agreement’s 2°C warming target as “something magical” shortly before Exxon endorsed the accord.

“As communities pay an ever-greater price for our worsening climate crisis, it’s more clear than ever that Exxon must be held accountable to pay for the harm it has caused.”

Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a statement that “this damning new evidence of Exxon’s climate lies shows that for decades it has been official company policy for executives to undermine climate science, minimize the dangers of their oil and gas business, and protect company profits at all costs—with no concern for the catastrophic impact their actions would have on humanity.”

Wiles argued that the documents reported by the Journal provide more evidence for the dozens of states, cities, and counties that are currently suing Exxon and other fossil fuel giants over their decades-long effort to deceive the public about climate change.

“As communities pay an ever-greater price for our worsening climate crisis,” said Wiles, “it’s more clear than ever that Exxon must be held accountable to pay for the harm it has caused.”

The new reporting could also heighten pressure on the Biden Justice Department to join the legal fight against Big Oil.

In late July, a group of progressive U.S. senators led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged the DOJ to sue fossil fuel giants for violating “federal racketeering laws, truth in advertising laws, consumer protection laws, and potentially other laws.”

It has long been public knowledge that Exxon, the largest oil and gas company in the United States, was aware of the climate impacts of its business model well before it admitted the link between fossil fuels and climate change.

A peer-reviewed study published earlier this year in the journal Science shows that Exxon’s own internal data between 1977 and 2003 contradicted the company’s public statements downplaying and questioning the veracity of climate science.

The Journal‘s reporting confirms that Exxon did not stop working to sow doubt about climate change after it conceded for the first time in 2006 that “the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere poses risks that may prove significant for society and ecosystems.”

“In 2008, Exxon announced it would stop funding think tanks and other groups that questioned climate science, saying their positions ‘could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner,'” the Journal noted.

But internal company documents show that “Exxon researchers continued to support scientific research that cast doubt on climate science and its impacts,” the newspaper reported.

The same year the company vowed to stop funding climate-denial organizations, Exxon’s manager of global regulatory affairs said that “Exxon should direct a scientist to help the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s influential lobbying group, write a paper about climate science uncertainty.”

Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, called the Journal‘s reporting “another massive exposé of Exxon’s strategy to attack climate science and block action.”

“Climate change isn’t just a tragedy,” Henn added, “it’s a crime.”

Original article by Jake Johnson republished from Common Dreams under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Continue Reading‘Time to Make Them Pay’: Internal Docs Further Expose Exxon Efforts to Spread Climate Lies

Exxon Still Has Its Foot on the Accelerator of the Climate Emergency

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A billboard in Austin, Texas, recognises and acknowledges Big Oil as causing climate crisis. (Image: Fossil Free Media)
A billboard in Austin, Texas, recognises and acknowledges Big Oil as causing climate crisis. (Image: Fossil Free Media)


If one oil company is synonymous with funding decades of climate denial, it is Exxon. For decades, the oil giant copied the deadly playbook of Big Tobacco of sowing doubt about the evidence and delaying action.

The company funded a covert network of foot soldiers to deny evidence, delay action, and divert away from the industry. Between the late ’90s and 2005, the oil giant donated $16 million to numerous right-wing and libertarian think tanks to manufacture uncertainty about climate change.

The oil company spread such confusion and obfuscation despite knowing for decades that fossil fuels would cause global warming. The company knew by the ’60s that climate change could have catastrophic consequences. For example, a report for the American Petroleum Institute, on which Exxon is a prominent member, warned of the dangers of climate change and the risks to sea level rise if Antarctic glaciers melted.

We must keep trying to hold the companies to account for their failure to act, for their failure to future generations.

Nine years later, in 1977, Exxon’s leaders were told directly by a senior company scientist, James F. Black, about the looming climate crisis. “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” he told Exxon’s Management Committee.

Decades after the company was first warned about climate change, in October 1997, the head of Exxon at the time, Lee “iron ass” Raymond, delivered a speech to the Fifteenth World Petroleum Congress in China.

As Steve Coll recalls in his book Private Empire, Raymond “devoted 33 paragraphs of his 78-paragraph speech to the argument that evidence about manmade climate change was an illusion.”

Months later, Exxon helped create a task force working with the American Petroleum Institute: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens understand (recognize) uncertainties in climate science” and when public “recognition of uncertainty becomes part of ‘unconventional wisdom.’” Where Big Tobacco led, Exxon followed with devastating consequences.

In 2006, nearly three decades after Exxon was first warned about climate change, the British Royal Society wrote to Exxon asking the company to stop funding organizations that feature information “on their websites that misrepresented the science of climate change, by outright denial of the evidence that greenhouse gases are driving climate change, or by overstating the amount and significance of uncertainty in knowledge or by conveying a misleading impression of the potential impacts of anthropogenic climate change.”

When Raymond retired, the Independent newspaper ran a front-page headline the following year: “The man who sold the planet.” The paper called Exxon the “Darth Vader of global warming” for its “denial that carbon emissions cause climate change.”


Continue ReadingExxon Still Has Its Foot on the Accelerator of the Climate Emergency

Congressional Dems Request DOJ Investigation into Big Oil’s Climate Deception

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Original article by Dana Drugmand republished from DeSmog.

U.S. Department of Justice in Washington DC. Credit: Scott (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Citing “new evidence” of Big Oil firms’ advanced knowledge of climate risks and their actions to publicly conceal these risks, Democratic members of Congress are renewing calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate carbon majors for potential violations of federal law.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday, the 20 congressional signatories, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), compare Big Oil’s deceptive conduct to that of Big Tobacco. In 2006, major tobacco firms were convicted of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in litigation brought by the DOJ. The letter requests that the DOJ now open an investigation into ExxonMobil, Shell, and other oil majors to “determine whether they violated RICO, consumer protection, truth in advertising, public health, or other laws.”

The call for a federal investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s alleged climate deception follows new revelations further showing that Big Oil knew about the climate consequences of its products, yet actively worked to disseminate climate denial and block policy responses to protect profits.

As DeSmog reported in an investigation published March 31, oil major Shell sponsored climate research in the 1970s — years earlier than previously thought. Despite the stark warnings for society issued in internal reports, the company backed a series of industry publications that downplayed climate risks, emphasized uncertainties in climate science, and called for more fossil fuel use, particularly coal. The investigation was based on more than 200 documents uncovered and compiled by Dutch scholar and activist Vatan Hüzeir.   

One of those documents, an internal 1989 Shell scenarios report, discussed the potential for an unprecedented climate refugee crisis with global temperatures rising considerably beyond 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). The report warned: “Civilisation [sic] could prove a fragile thing.”

The congressional letter to DOJ cites this and several other Shell documents from the investigation, stating: “Despite these warnings, Shell continued to publicly promote the use of fossil fuels and participate in trade associations and other groups that pushed climate denial and opposed solutions.” As DeSmog’s reporting noted, Shell engaged in lobbying and trade associations in the 1990s and 2000s that did just that, such as the Global Climate Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute.     

The letter also points to two peer-reviewed studies indicating that Big Oil deceived and continues to deceive the public. One, published in January in the journal Science by researchers Geoffrey Supran, Stefan Rahmstorf, and Naomi Oreskes, demonstrated that Exxon’s climate modeling and global warming projections were exceptionally accurate, and explained that despite this skillful scientific understanding, the company’s public statements contradicted its internal knowledge of the climate risk. The other study, by Mei Li, Gregory Trencher, and Jusen Asuka and published in 2022 in the journal PLOS ONE, showed the disconnect between oil majors’ rhetoric and pledges around the low carbon transition and their actual actions and investments that prioritize their fossil fuel business.

“The available evidence that these companies lied — and continue to lie — to the public about their central role in exacerbating the climate crisis demands further investigation,” the letter contends. It alleges that this conduct may “constitute the most consequential deception campaign in history, with potentially existential consequences for our planet.”

Shell and ExxonMobil knew their products fueled the #ClimateCrisis, but lied to the public to protect their profits.

READ: Our bicameral letter, co-led by @SenBlumenthal, urging @TheJusticeDept to investigate whether their actions violated federal law. https://t.co/pg3vP9jPgm— Rep. Ted Lieu (@RepTedLieu) July 25, 2023

The letter comes amidst alarming signals of climate breakdown across the country, from the hot-tub-temperature water off the Florida Keys, to the worst flooding Vermont has seen in nearly a century, to punishing heat in the Southwest sizzling sidewalks and causing severe burn injuries.

The Democratic members of Congress who signed onto the letter along with Sen. Blumenthal and Rep. Lieu include Reps. Katie Porter, Jared Huffman, Mark DeSaulnier, Kevin Mullin, and Nanette Díaz Barragán, all of California; Reps. Kim Schrier and Pramila Jayapal of Washington; Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida; Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Peter Welch of Vermont, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and Alex Padilla of California also signed on.

Just two weeks ago, during an online climate discussion, several members of Congress including Ocasio-Cortez, Whitehouse, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, called on the Department of Justice to take legal action against Big Oil, with Sanders suggesting they pay the Attorney General a visit to make their request in person. He and other senators have previously written to the DOJ and President Joe Biden requesting an investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s climate deception.

Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, which advocates for holding climate polluters accountable, said in an emailed statement that this deception amounts to the most “consequential fraud committed against the American people” ever. 

“Just as they did with the tobacco industry, the Department of Justice must exercise its unique power to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable and stop the lying,” Wiles said. “As long as Big Oil’s climate lies, both past and present, remain unchallenged by the DOJ, protecting the American public from the ravages of climate change will remain that much more difficult.”

Original article by Dana Drugmand republished from DeSmog.

Continue ReadingCongressional Dems Request DOJ Investigation into Big Oil’s Climate Deception