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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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California escalates legal battle against oil companies

The California attorney general claims in an amended complaint that big oil companies engaged in campaigns of deception to mislead the public about the effects of climate change.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — California Attorney General Rob Bonta intensified his legal fight against five of the world's largest fossil fuel companies Monday, filing an amended complaint that accuses Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute of engaging in a prolonged campaign of deception about the realities of climate change and the environmental damage caused by fossil fuels.

In the amended complaint, filed Monday afternoon in San Francisco County Superior Court, the attorney general introduces new evidence of false advertising and greenwashing by the companies and seeks the disgorgement remedy provided by Assembly Bill 1366, which was enacted earlier this year. The remedy would require the defendants to surrender profits obtained through their alleged illegal activities, with the funds being directed to the newly established Victims of Consumer Fraud Restitution Fund.

"This much is clear: Big Oil continues to mislead us with their lies and mistruths, and we won’t stand for that,” Bonta said in a statement. “Their ongoing egregious misconduct is damning. We will continue to vigorously prosecute this matter and ensure that Big Oil pays to abate the harm they have caused, and we will recover ill-gotten gains that will benefit Californians.”

In the original lawsuit, the state accused the companies and the American Petroleum Institute of knowing since at least the 1960s that fossil fuel combustion would significantly warm the planet and alter the climate. Despite this knowledge, the companies denied and cast doubt on climate science in their public statements and marketing efforts, the plaintiffs say. The new complaint builds on these claims by highlighting recent examples of deceptive environmental marketing, or "greenwashing," where companies falsely portray their products and operations as environmentally friendly.

“The companies’ misconduct has resulted in tremendous costs to people, property, and natural resources, which continue to unfold each day. Californians and their families, communities, and small businesses should not have to bear all the costs of climate change alone; 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,” Bonta said in the amended complaint.

In his amended complaint, Bonta details how these companies' marketing materials often misleadingly describe certain products as "clean" and use "green" imagery to suggest they are less harmful to the environment. This misleading advertising aims to convince consumers that these companies are part of the climate solution rather than significant contributors to the climate crisis. Moreover, the American Petroleum Institute has continued to make misleading statements about oil and natural gas, further promoting fossil fuel use, according to Bonta’s complaint.

In addition, Bonta said in the amended complaint that the defendants’ own scientists knew as early as the 1950s that fossil fuels would cause “catastrophic” climate impacts, and that there was only a narrow window of time in which communities and governments could act to stop that catastrophe.

“Rather than warn consumers, the public, and governments, however, defendants mounted a disinformation campaign beginning at least as early as the 1970s to discredit the burgeoning scientific consensus on climate change; deny their own knowledge of climate change related threats; create doubt in the minds of consumers, the media, teachers, policymakers, and the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of burning fossil fuels; and delay the necessary transition to a lower-carbon future,” Bonta says in the complaint.

Ryan Meyers, the American Petroleum Institute’s senior vice president and general counsel, said Congress should debate and decide how to address climate policy, rather than a "patchwork" of courts.

"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 taxpayer resources," Meyers aid.

By invoking AB 1366, Bonta is now able to seek disgorgement of profits obtained through violations of consumer protection laws. If the court finds in favor of Bonta’s claims and orders disgorgement, the resulting funds would be placed into the Victims of Consumer Fraud Restitution Fund, which is intended to provide restitution to victims of consumer fraud in California. Bonta is requesting a jury trial in the suit.

The defendant oil companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Categories / Environment, Government, Health

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