California Takes Big Oil To Court

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The state of California has brought suit against 5 major oil companies — one of which is headquartered in that state — and the American Petroleum Institute, alleging they have known about the dangers posed by using their products and lied about what they knew for nearly 70 years.

Alert readers may wonder why, if the actions complained of are so egregious, the companies and their officials are not being charged criminally so these executives can ponder their actions from inside the cozy confines of a jail cell. Suffice it to say that America gives a free pass to climate criminals while severely punishing those who dare disrupt the construction of a pipeline. If you think there is something manifestly unfair about how different classes of people are dealt with by the American justice system, you are not alone.

The suit names ExxonMobil, ConocoPhllips, BP, Shell, and Chevron, along with the API. None of the companies responded to a request for comment from the New York Times, but Ryan Meyers, general counsel for the American Petroleum Institute, snarled, “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.”

Myers has a point. Climate policy should be the responsibility of the Congress. What he fails to say is that the corporations his organization represents have purchased many members of Congress through their campaign contributions, leaving America in a “heads they win, tails we lose” situation.

In an email to CleanTechnica, Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity said, “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. 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.

“As similar cases proceed toward trial, California’s move is an unmistakable sign that the wave of climate lawsuits against Big Oil will keep growing and that these polluters’ days of escaping accountability for their lies are numbered. Just like tobacco and opioid companies, the oil and gas industry will have to face the evidence of its deception in court.”

What Does California Want?

Image courtesy of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

In the 135-page complaint filed by attorney general Rob Banta, the State of California claims that, starting in the 1950s, the companies and their allies intentionally downplayed the risks posed by fossil fuels to the public, even though they understood that their products were likely to lead to significant global warming.

It alleges the companies have continued to mislead the public about their commitment to reducing emissions in recent years, while boasting about minor investments in alternative fuels and reaping record profits from the production of planet-warming fossil fuels. The complaint asks the Superior Court in San Francisco to create an abatement fund to pay for the future damages caused by climate related disasters in the state.

CleanTechnica readers will immediately recognize that what California is asking for is, in effect, an ex post facto correction to the prevailing weaponized model of capitalism that allows corporations to pollute the skies, the land, and the waters of the United States to their heart’s content without compensating society one penny for the harm they do. Economists call this an “untaxed externality.” California wants to close that loophole now and for all time.

Lies On Top Of Lies

DeSmog Blog reports the lawsuit alleges the companies engaged in misleading advertising; misleading environmental marketing; unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent business practices; product liability; pollution and destruction of natural resources; and public nuisance.

Noting that just this year the state has suffered from multiple climate-related disasters, such as extreme flooding and drought, severe wildfires, and a record summer temperatures, the complaint argues that California taxpayers should not have to bear all the costs of dealing with these escalating climate impacts.

Instead, “the companies that have polluted our air, choked our skies with smoke, wreaked havoc on our water cycle, and contaminated our lands must be made to mitigate the harms they have brought upon the State.” The complaint asks the court to “hold those companies accountable for the lies they have told and the damage they have caused.” The lawsuit claims that California has already spent tens of billions of dollars paying for climate disasters, and expects costs to rise significantly in the years ahead.

“This has been a multi-decade, ongoing campaign to seek endless profits at the expense of our planet, our people, and the greedy corporations and individuals need to be held accountable,” Mr. Bonta said in an interview. “That’s where we come in.”

There is a precedent for such a fund. Years ago, several California cities sued the makers of lead paint on similar grounds. After decades of litigation, the companies agreed to settle for $305 million, money that was used to create an abatement fund.

Sick & Shameful

California Governor Gavin Newsom told the press after the lawsuit was filed, “These folks had this information and lied to us, and we could have staved off some of the most significant consequences, It’s shameful. It’s sickens you to your core.” It does not, however, sicken any of the executives of these companies, who are laughing all the way to the bank to deposit the massive profits they have earned in the past two years.

Newsom added, “This last 10 years, it’s shook me to my core. These are things that we imagined we might be experiencing in 2040 and 2050 but that have been brought into the present moment, and the time for accountability is now.”

“This has been a multi-decade, ongoing campaign to seek endless profits at the expense of our planet, our people, and the greedy corporations and individuals need to be held accountable,” Mr. Bonta said in an interview. “That’s where we come in.”

The Takeaway

Lawsuits against the oil giants have been pending in federal and state courts for many years. So far, none have come to trial and not one penny in damages has been paid by the oil companies. It is commonly understood that delay always works to the advantage of one party in all litigation. The companies have armadas of $1000 per hour attorneys whose sole purpose is to delay, delay, and delay some more. During all those delays, the companies are earning record profits.

Who wouldn’t pay a few million dollars to lobbyists and lawyers so they can make tens of billions in profits every year? Sadly, the legal profession has no shortage of lawyers who would sacrifice the health and safety of their own children in order to suck money from their wealthy clients. Morality, sadly, is not a requirement to practice law.

There is a sense the noose is tightening around the necks of the fossil fuel companies who think they have a God-given right to pollute the environment for their own personal gain. But whether the courts or any other instrumentality will act soon enough to keep us from going over the climate change cliff and into the abyss below seems doubtful at best.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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