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'It Is Time They Pay': California Sues Big Oil Over 'Decades of Damage and Deception'

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Oil refinery seen across a body of water.
The Shell oil refinery in Martinez, as seen on June 20, 2017. (Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Updated 5 p.m. Sunday

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Saturday that California is suing five of the world’s largest oil companies for cover-up, deception and damages that they say have cost Californians billions of dollars in environmental and health impacts.

“Oil and gas executives have known for decades about the dangers of the fossil fuels they produce,” stated a press release from Newsom’s office. In the press release, Newsom accused the companies of spreading disinformation on climate change in order to protect profits over the last 50 years.

Exxon, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP — along with the largest domestic oil industry lobby group, American Petroleum Institute — are all named as defendants in the suit, which was filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Friday.

The announcement Saturday is the latest in a slew of lawsuits brought against the oil industry in states across the U.S., including similar suits in Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and even Puerto Rico.

Michael Wara, who is a senior research scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment and director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford Law School, said it was unsurprising that the suit was filed in state court, which he says is generally “more favorable on issues of climate litigation” towards the plaintiffs than federal courts have been. He expects the oil companies will likely try to move the case to a federal court on some of the claims, where the oil companies would expect to have a more favorable outcome.

“I think this is kind of an acceleration and amplification of the broader attempts to hold oil companies to account for their deceptive marketing and advocacy campaigns around climate change,” said Wara in an interview with KQED. “And the more that we learn about that, the more it becomes apparent that they have been deceptive.”

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California is attempting to hold the oil companies responsible for what it says are their impacts on the environment, human health and Californians’ livelihoods. The state also seeks to prohibit the companies from “engaging in further pollution and destruction” of California communities and natural resources, and insists that they they pay financial penalties for “lying to the public” and ordered to “immediately stop … ongoing efforts to deceive or misinform about their catastrophic impacts.” The state also seeks punitive damages “to punish these companies for their misconduct.”

“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,” Gov. Newsom said in the statement. “It has been decades of damage and deception. Wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air, deadly heat waves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells. California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable.”

In the statement, Attorney General Bonta said “Enough is enough.”

“With our lawsuit, California becomes the largest geographic area and the largest economy to take these giant oil companies to court,” he said. “From extreme heat to drought and water shortages, the climate crisis they have caused is undeniable. It is time they pay to abate the harm they have caused.”

News of the lawsuit triggered a flurry of statements from environmental groups welcoming the news.

“With this historic lawsuit, Gov. Newsom and Attorney General Bonta are providing the climate leadership the world so desperately needs,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, in a statement released Saturday.

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Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, released a statement saying, “Whether it’s fires, droughts, extreme heat, or sea-level rise, Californians have been living in a climate emergency caused by the fossil fuel industry, and now the state is taking decisive action to make those polluters pay.”

Jamie Henn, founder of Fossil Free Media, said “Climate change isn’t just a tragedy, it’s a crime. Fossil fuel companies knew, they lied, and now it’s time to make them pay.”

Patrick Parenteau, professor of environmental law at Vermont Law and Graduate School, says the lawsuit is a straightforward tort case, alleging that the oil companies lied about the dangers they knew their products were causing.

“This is no different than cigarette companies lying about the dangers of smoking, or paint companies lying about the dangers of lead-based paint, or chemical companies lying about the dangers of PFAS in Teflon-coated frying pans,” said Parenteau in an email to KQED.

In an emailed statement to KQED late Saturday, a spokesperson for Chevron said that climate change is a global problem that required coordinated international policy response rather than “piecemeal litigation.”

“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,” Chevron said.

In an email statement on Sunday morning, a Shell spokesperson wrote: “The Shell Group’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades. We agree that action is needed now on climate change, and we fully support the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future. As we supply vital energy the world needs today, we continue to reduce our emissions and help customers reduce theirs.”

The email also added: “We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress.”

Scott Lauermann, media relations manager for the American Petroleum Institute, told KQED in a statement that “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.”

Patrick Parenteau, a professor of law emeritus at Vermont Law & Graduate School told KQED that in order to win the case, California needs to prove that the alleged lies caused real damage.

“They have to connect the lie to the damage, so they have to say if you hadn’t lied we would be in a better position than we are today,” he said. “That’s where the cases are going to be decided.”

Parenteau said that “everybody knows that these cases aren’t going to solve climate change,” but “the fundamental rule of environmental law is [that the] polluter pays. In the end, that’s all these cases are about.”

KQED’s Lakshmi Sarah, Kevin Stark, Azul Dahlstrom Eckman and Attila Pelit contributed to this story.

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