The state of California is taking legal action against some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, claiming they deceived the public about the risks of fossil fuels now faulted for climate change-related storms and wildfires that have caused billions of dollars in damage.
A civil lawsuit filed in the Superior Court in San Francisco also seeks the creation of a fund – financed by the companies – to pay for recovery efforts following devastating storms and fires.
Democratic governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement the companies named in the lawsuit – Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP – should be held accountable.
He said: “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.
“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 heatwaves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells.”
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group also named in the lawsuit, said climate policy should be debated in Congress, not the courtroom.
Its senior vice-president Ryan Meyers said in a statement: “This ongoing, co-ordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicised 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.”
That was echoed in a statement from Shell, which said the courtroom is not the proper venue to address global warming.
“Addressing climate change requires a collaborative, society-wide approach,” the energy giant said. “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.”
California’s legal action joins similar lawsuits filed by other US states and municipalities in recent years.
The 135-page complaint argues the companies have known since at least the 1960s that the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet and change the climate, but they downplayed the looming threat in public statements and marketing.
It said the companies’ scientists knew as far back as the 1950s that the climate impacts would be catastrophic, and that there was only a narrow window of time in which communities and governments could respond.
Instead, the lawsuit said, the companies mounted a disinformation campaign beginning at least as early as the 1970s to discredit a growing scientific consensus on climate change, and disputed climate change-related risks.
State Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement that the companies “have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment. Enough is enough”.
Allegations in the lawsuit include faulting the companies for creating or contributing to climate change in California, false advertising, damage to natural resources and unlawful business practices for deceiving the public about climate change.
Richard Wiles, president of the Centre for Climate Integrity, said in a statement that “California’s decision to take Big Oil companies to court is a watershed moment in the rapidly expanding legal fight to hold major polluters accountable for decades of climate lies”.
He added: “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.”
Heavily Democratic California is the birthplace of the modern environmental movement, and the Newsom administration is pushing to expand solar power and other clean energy as the state aims to cut emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
For decades, California was one of the leading oil producers in the country, with a bustling industry that was a pillar in the state economy. The state is now the nation’s seventh-largest oil producer, according to federal data.
But state regulators have banned the sale of most new gas-powered cars in California by 2035. And Mr Newsom signed a new law earlier this year that gives state regulators the power to penalise oil companies for making too much money, the first of its kind in the country.
While the state is considered a leader in addressing climate change, Mr Newsom has not always lined up with the environmental advocacy wing.
There have been tensions over updates the state’s ageing water delivery system, clashes over new permits for oil and gas wells, and what to do with water from rivers swollen by powerful storms, with activists alarmed that diverting too much water would be a death sentence for salmon and other threatened fish species.