I. The context and legal basis of the action

California is one of the states (if not the state) most affected by global warming in the United States. Victim of forest fires, floods and other extreme phenomena linked to the current climate, it is bearing the full brunt of the damage caused by global warming.

On Friday September 15, 2023, California State Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a civil suit in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of the people of California. The lawsuit targets five of the world's largest oil companies: Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron. The Californian government accuses them of running misinformation campaigns about fossil fuels for decades. The state claims that these companies have caused billions of dollars in damage and misled public opinion by downplaying the climate risks posed by fossil fuels.

The American Petroleum Institute, the national trade association for the oil and gas industry, is also named in the complaint. According to the New York Times, published on September 15, the complaint alleges that, from the 1950s onwards, these companies and their allies intentionally minimized the risks posed to the public by fossil fuels. This even though they knew that their products were likely to cause significant global warming.

It is said that they have continued to mislead the public about their commitment to reducing emissions in recent years, boasting of minor investments in alternative fuels. This while reaping record profits from the production of planet-warming fossil fuels. For California Governor Gavin Newsom, "These people had this information and lied to us, and we could have avoided some of the most serious consequences". The 135-page complaint also calls for the creation of a fund to deal with future climate change damage in California.

II. Issues and follow-up

This lawsuit is part of a series of actions by U.S. cities, counties and states against the fossil fuel industry for its environmental impacts.

Indeed, seven other states and dozens of municipalities have brought similar actions in recent years. But the California lawsuit immediately becomes one of the most significant legal challenges facing the fossil fuel industry. In addition to being the country's most populous state, California is a major oil and gas producer, and its Attorney General's office is said to have a history of bringing precedent-setting lawsuits that are emulated by smaller states.

California is also at the forefront of extreme weather events linked to climate change, as already explained. Thus, "The California case is the largest, most decisive and most powerful climate action directed against the oil and gas industry in U.S. history," said Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, a non-profit organization that tracks climate-related litigation.

What's next?

It's not impossible that this lawsuit will succeed, based on the similar litigation mentioned above. Indeed, the oil and gas industry has attempted to counter these lawsuits using various procedures, but the US Supreme Court recently refused to consider certain appeals, allowing the lawsuits to continue. And this approach is inspired by the successes achieved in cases against the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, particularly with regard to the proliferation of opioids.
As for the defendants, none have yet responded to media requests for comment.

But the American Petroleum Institute has spoken out. In a statement, its general counsel Ryan Meyers said, "This ongoing, coordinated campaign of baseless, politicized lawsuits against a fundamental American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and a tremendous waste of California taxpayer resources. Climate policy should be debated and decided by Congress, not the court system."
To be continued...