California was on a roll last week. On Wednesday and Thursday, new climate disclosure bills passed in the legislature and are expected to be signed by the Governor. To follow that one-two punch, the California Attorney General threw a haymaker at five of the world’s largest oil and gas companies by filing a 135-page complaint, kicking off what is sure to be a highly followed lawsuit. Recent reporting from The New York Times covers the lawsuit and explains its core arguments as such:
“[The complaint] 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 that Exxon, Chevron and the other companies have continued to mislead the public about their commitment to reducing emissions in recent years, boasting about minor investments in alternative fuels while reaping record profits from the production of planet-warming fossil fuels.”
At the center of the case are allegations that major oil companies knew about the effects of climate change and waged a decades-long disinformation campaign to obscure those effects. While thus far the companies involved have denied such knowledge, recently validated internal documents appear to tell a different story. The lawsuit seeks to create an abatement fund bankrolled by the lawsuit that would pay for damages caused by future climate events as well as for planning and mitigation measures to prevent future damages.
Companies that have historically been a major contributors to global emissions now face a heightened risk. Oil and gas companies seem to have doubled down on their position and several of the majors have walked back emissions reduction commitments. We’ll see how that strategy plays out, but at this juncture I’m unsure that it will go well. These suits may result in mass settlements similar to those we’ve seen from tobacco and opioid litigation, and could potentially entail injunctive orders limiting how oil and gas businesses operate. It’s likely to hurt less if the industry adapts climate business plans and communication strategies now, rather than be caught flat footed by a court order.
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