California sues energy companies for hiding climate change research

California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit against the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, alleging they knew about and hid the causes and consequences of climate change for years. In a statement, Governor Gavin Newsom blamed “Big Oil” for the California wildfires and water shortages many experts blame on state policy, not carbon dioxide emissions.

Bonta’s suit targets Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and the American Petroleum Institute for allegedly “engaging in a decades-long campaign of deception and creating statewide climate change-related harms in California.” The lawsuit largely focuses on the allegations that companies “have known since at least the 1960s that the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet,” but that they have “denied or downplayed climate change in public statements and marketing.” Claiming California has spent tens of billions of dollars to “adapt to climate change” and “address the damages climate change has caused so far” and that the state will “need to spend multiples of that” in coming years, Bonta is seeking that these companies “finance climate mitigation and adaption efforts,” “injunctive relief” to “protect California’s natural resources” and “prevent the companies from making any further false or misleading statements” in addition to further damages and penalties.

“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,” said Newsom in a public statement on the lawsuit. “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 heat waves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bonta noted the case’s similarity to lawsuits against tobacco companies, in which tobacco companies were found guilty of fraud and deception when they knew about but publicly downplayed or did not share the risks from smoking. However, critics say that unlike the tobacco cases, where smoking was definitively linked to negative health outcomes, fossil fuel companies do not appear to be the driver of state wildfires and water shortages.

“They have no case because there are far bigger and more blatantly obvious reasons for California’s wildfires and water shortages that have nothing to do with carbon dioxide emissions,” said California Policy Center co-founder and water expert Edward Ring in an interview. “California’s forests are burning because we’ve engaged in a century of fire suppression at the same time we’ve regulated our timber industry nearly out of existence and made it impossible for anyone who wants to do controlled burns or mechanical thinning to navigate the regulatory obstacles. California, even in drought years, gets plenty of water, but has not made significant investments in water infrastructure for over 50 years.”

According to peer-reviewed research, 2020’s wildfires in California released twice as much carbon dioxide as the state’s total of emission reductions from 2003 through 2019. Meanwhile, analysis from The Center Square has found that roughly 40% of forests in California, or the approximately 7.5 million acres of federal forests and 5.6 million acres of state-managed forests, require treatment for dangerous buildup of brush that leads to wildfires. With the state currently treating just 100,000 acres of at-risk forest per year, California would take 56 years to clear its current backlog, not counting the new areas in need of treatment each year. The Property and Environment Research Center says that due to processes required by federal environmental laws, it takes an average of 3.6 years to begin mechanical treatment (the physical removal of built-up underbrush) and 4.7 years to begin a prescribed burn for land at very high risk for wildfires.

California’s Sites Reservoir, expected to cost $4.4 billion and operational at the earliest by 2030, would be the state’s first new reservoir of significant size since the 1970s, when the state’s population was half the size it is today.


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