Oil companies sued by California for lying about climate change

The state of California has joined several other states and municipalities in suing five major oil companies, charging that they had known for a long time from their internal science that the burning of fossil fuels was harming the environment and driving climate change but lying about it to the public.

California is suing five of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, alleging that they engaged in a “decades-long campaign of deception” about climate change and the risks posed by fossil fuels that has forced the state to spend tens of billions of dollars to address environmental-related damages.

State Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta filed the lawsuit Friday in San Francisco County Superior Court alleging that Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and the American Petroleum Institute have known since the 1950s that the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet but instead of alerting the public about the dangers posed to the environment they chose to deny or downplay the effects.

“Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades — that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change,” Bonta said in a statement, “but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record breaking profits at the expense of our environment. Enough is enough.”

Back in 2017, I wrote about the paper by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes that internal ExxonMobil documents and research supported and done by ExxonMobil largely supported the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change while their public stance was largely at odds with it. You can follow that link to read their expose. There is a new study showing that their knowledge went back 50 years.

In 2015, investigative journalists discovered internal company memos indicating that Exxon oil company has known since the late 1970s that its fossil fuel products could lead to global warming with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.” Additional documents then emerged showing that the US oil and gas industry’s largest trade association had likewise known since at least the 1950s, as had the coal industry since at least the 1960s, and electric utilities, Total oil company, and GM and Ford motor companies since at least the 1970s. Scholars and journalists have analyzed the texts contained in these documents, providing qualitative accounts of fossil fuel interests’ knowledge of climate science and its implications. In 2017, for instance, we demonstrated that Exxon’s internal documents, as well as peer-reviewed studies published by Exxon and ExxonMobil Corp scientists, overwhelmingly acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused. By contrast, the majority of Mobil and ExxonMobil Corp’s public communications promoted doubt on the matter.

This new lawsuit builds upon that and new information.

California’s complaint includes several examples of evidence demonstrating that the defendants have long known about the environmental threat posed by the use of fossil fuels.

For instance, in 1968, API [American Petroleum Institute] and its members received a report from the Stanford Research Institute, which it had hired to assess the state of research on environmental pollutants, including carbon dioxide, according to the lawsuit. The report stated: “Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and . . . there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”

In 1978, an internal Exxon memo stated that present “thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

Although other states had taken the lead in such lawsuits, California is the biggest state and the first oil producing state to do so and thus its presence in the lawsuit adds greater weight.

The oil companies know the harm they are causing but lie in public and flood the media with supposed ‘research’ (that they fund) that seem to suggest that there is doubt about causality and that hence it is premature to take any action until ‘the science is settled’. This fig leaf is used by policy makers who get funded by these companies to argue that we should hold off on any action. In fact, the science has long been settled, and the delays caused by these companies may have caused irreversible damage to the planet.

The oil companies are using the same strategy used by the tobacco companies when their products were accused of causing cancer. The tobacco companies kept denying that there was any link between their product and cancer but lawsuits brought out into the open internal research by the companies that showed that they knew there was a causal relationship but denied it in public. The tobacco companies tried to shift the blame for cancers onto others, when they knew that their product caused cancers and that second-hand smoke could also be lethal.

The oil companies are saying that this is not an issue for courts to decide but for congress, which they know will never take serious action. They argue that climate change is some sad consequence of actions taken by all of us and for which we all should work to solve, and that they have no special responsibility in finding a solution. They also do a lot of ‘greenwashing’, doing things that are trumpeted as environmentally friendly but do not come anywhere close to offsetting the damage they are causing.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    Richard Nixon read a memo about climate change fifty years ago.

    Svante Arrhenius predicted climate change 1898.

    The oil and coal companies have an absolute responsibility for decades of propaganda in the same way as Julius Streicher (he was executed).

  2. moarscienceplz says

    While this suit is justified, the fact that California is bringing it has more than a whiff of ‘pot v. kettle’. California has done more than any other state to force its citizens to own cars and to drive everywhere. I have to drive twelve miles one way to go to work, even though my house and my job are in the same city. To take public transit, buses are my only choice and it would require walking over a mile as well as two transfers.

  3. Deepak Shetty says


    California has done more than any other state to force its citizens to own cars and to drive everywhere

    Rubbish -- This is a US wide problem.

    I have to drive twelve miles one way to go to work, even though my house and my job are in the same city.

    I had to buy a car when I was across the street from my workplace in Michigan (0.1 miles!) -- The crossing sidewalk was half a mile away though and running across the road seemed to be problematic in winter.
    I did on the other hand take BART for a year when in California.

  4. garnetstar says

    Big companies never learn, do they? Ford also: when their Pinto was shown to have a design flaw that caused passengers to burn to death after even minor accidents, they did a study on the costs of fixing the flaw. They concluded that it’d cost less to let people burn to death and settle the wrongful death lawsuits than to fix the flaw. So, they let the flaw go unfixed.

    Some fool actually wrote this down(!) in internal documents that got released, and of course there was then hell to pay.

    And, private companies are not subject to the law of the land? Are answerable only to Congress? Talk about special snowflakes whining for special treatment.

  5. anat says

    moarscienceplz @2: If you are in at least half-decent physical health walking ‘over a mile’ should be doable. My daily commute includes walking that adds up to 1.5 miles each direction. But 2 transfers each way is hard, especially as timing can be tricky.

    As for the topic, Go California! (And the other states in the lawsuit)

  6. jenorafeuer says

    Technically they never ‘decided’ to not fix the flaw; though yes, the comparison of money lost via lawsuits versus actually fixing the problem was documented. (The price point had already been advertised, so raising the price to cover the fixes would have created its own problems.)

    Instead, they just kept bouncing the question around through committees until there was no time left to actually make a decision, and then dropped it, that way making sure that nobody was ever actually on record as explicitly deciding to not fix it.

    That is, of course, one of the primary purposes of committees in any bureaucracy, is making sure that no one person can ever actually be blamed for something.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    @#5 anat
    Yeah… I think you need to check your privilege here. There are many people who have much difficulty walking a mile yet they still need to get to a job. Also, the same restrictions would apply if I wanted to go shopping or any of the other things one does outside of one’s home to live a life without a car. (I should make it clear here that I live in a normal residential neighborhood. I don’t live out in a rural area.) I myself went through a bout of knee problems for several months that would have made walking two miles a day (round trip) very painful and possibly debilitating. Fortunately for me the problem has gone, but I have no guarantee it won’t recur.

  8. seachange says

    The reason California does not make more gasoline is because we regulate refineries in ways to protect our environment and our workers that other states don’t. Oil companies could make money even with the regulations we have. They just don’t want to. So we are an oil producing state but gasoline here is more expensive because it is imported from elsewhere.

    The reason California does not pump even more oil than we do even if we did magically get more (safe) refineries is because we are unable to regulate mining on federal ocean leases. Federal law *encourages* spills, encourages unsafe conditions for workers, and very strongly protects those who do environmental damage and personal injury even within the things they don’t allow.

    This lawsuit might expose some interesting things.

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