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California Sues Big Oil

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at California's lawsuit against big oil companies.
Abigail Bassett
Sep 27, 2023 10 min read
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A few weeks ago, we took a deeper look at climate lawsuits around the world, and the topic came up again in the news a couple of weeks ago. This time, it’s the state of California suing several major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron, and their powerful lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, for their role in climate change.

The suit alleges that Big Oil downplayed the risks associated with climate change and purposefully deceived the public about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels. While California isn't the first state to bring suit against the oil companies (that honor goes to Rhode Island), it is the largest, and the outcome of the suit will be closely watched by climate advocates around the world.

What’s At Stake in the California Lawsuit?

The California lawsuit was filed on September 22 in San Francisco’s Superior Court, and it argues that the companies and their lobbying firm misled the public for decades about the dangers of fossil fuels and climate change.  

It points to extreme weather events, like the recent hurricane that came ashore in Los Angeles for the first time in decades and the massive fires that have devastated California for the last two years, resulting in major insurers pulling out of the state altogether. California wants these companies to help fund recovery efforts related to these extreme weather events that they say are a direct result of climate change caused by the oil and gas companies listed in the suit.

The lawsuit also argues that oil companies misled the public about the environmental and health risks associated with operations, which includes downplaying the impact that oil and gas production activities have had on climate change and the potential hazards posed by oil spills and other accidents.

California is also claiming that the activities of these oil companies have not only impacted the climate but hurt the state economically.

A Backdrop of Climate Suits That Have Come to Bear Fruit

The latest suit falls against the backdrop of an increasing number of municipalities, states, and even countries suing corporate entities (and each other) for their role in climate change. At least two climate lawsuits have garnered headlines in the last month alone.

Most prominently, the recent win by the group of young people who successfully sued the state of Montana for failing to protect them from climate change, hanging their argument on their rights to have a "fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate." This landmark ruling could open the door for other youth-led climate suits, like the one in Hawaii, that will be heard next year.

In addition to this suit, a suit against 32 nations was brought by a group of young people in the EU this month, alleging that the lack of adequate action to stem climate change is a breach of human rights. This case is one of the largest climate legal actions to date.

In addition to the number of suits working through court systems, independent scientific evidence has started to bolster cases all over the world. For example, Nature recently "supplied independent scientific evidence and legal advice to the court in the form of an amicus curiae ('friends of the court') brief," in a landmark climate case, making its way through the Swiss courts. In that case, Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland, the association called the Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland ( also known as the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz) is suing the Swiss government in Europe's highest human-rights court for failing to do enough to fight climate change and prevent heat-related risks to human health.

The California case is not the first time a state, country, or municipality has legally gone after oil companies for the damage they caused. However, many in the past have focused on the direct impact of accidents like oil spills, petroleum additives, fracking, human rights abuses, and more. Suits like the one in California with the focus on climate change are rarer, though there are those like the one in Puerto Rico alleging that big oil colluded on climate denial.

The California suit, in particular, recalls the days when the U.S. sued big tobacco and won, resulting in the Master Settlement Agreement in 1988, which forced tobacco firms to pay billions of dollars to 46 states, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia, as compensation for the public health crisis resulting from tobacco products. It was the largest civil settlement in the U.S.'s history. The big oil suit pulls some pages from the playbook of the case against big tobacco, too.

As the New York Times points out, the current oil suit also has important historical context. "In the 1950s and 1960s, oil companies helped the tobacco industry test poisons in cigarettes. And then, there was a 1968 report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute and conducted by the Stanford Research Institute. It detailed how fossil fuels caused climate change but was never widely distributed, said Carroll Muffett, C.E.O. and president of the Center for International Environmental Law, who has studied the links between the two industries.”

Why it Matters?

California is the largest state to sue oil companies over climate change, and as we noted last week, where California goes, so goes the U.S.

California is the most populous state in the U.S. and has the largest economy of any U.S. state. It also has the fifth-largest economy in the world. When California takes legal action, it often has significant implications because of the state's size, influence, and the precedent it can set for other jurisdictions.

Several cities and counties within California, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, have also filed separate, additional lawsuits against oil companies over climate change. These lawsuits allege that the companies knew about the harmful effects of their products on the climate but continued to promote them while downplaying the risks.

While other states and countries have also taken legal action against oil companies regarding climate change, California could be the gorilla in the room when it comes to the national and global stage.

While these kinds of lawsuits can take years to come to fruition, we’ll continue to keep an eye on how these and other climate suits fare around the world and keep you updated with the latest developments.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett