California is taking legal action against some of the world’s largest energy companies, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron, accusing them of hiding the damage caused by fossil fuels on the state for over 50 years. This lawsuit is significant as it is the most prominent attempt to hold Big Oil accountable for its role in climate change. The state is seeking for the companies to cover the costs of fighting wildfires and mitigating the effects of pollution. California argues that these oil majors should be fined for burying scientific evidence linking carbon emissions to greenhouse gases. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry lobbying group, has labeled the suit as “meritless.”
California is using a playbook similar to the one it employed in the 1990s when it fought against Big Tobacco. In those cases, states proved that tobacco companies had concealed evidence linking smoking to cancer and won a payout of over $360 billion. There are historical links between Big Tobacco and Big Oil, as oil companies were involved in testing poisons in cigarettes in the 1950s and 1960s. A 1968 report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, which detailed the role of fossil fuels in climate change, was also not widely distributed.
While victory is uncertain, as proving oil companies’ climate culpability may be more challenging than linking smoking to health effects, other states and countries are also filing lawsuits against the industry. The Netherlands, Britain, France, and Italy have similar cases, and litigation is underway in New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
This legal action by California, the fifth-largest economy in the world and a major oil producer, holds significant weight. The state has used its political clout to shape environmental policies and recently passed a bill requiring companies to disclose their carbon emissions. The oil majors will face challenges in court, but the potential involvement of other states may strengthen the case against them.