California AG sues top 5 oil companies alleging decades-long false advertising campaign

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Saturday that his office is suing the top five oil companies for allegedly misleading the public on climate change.

The complaint was filed in San Francisco County Superior Court and alleges that Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP all knew since the 1960s that burning fossil fuels had detrimental effects on the planet. 

Bonta says California has spent tens of billions of dollars to combat climate change and is suing to establish a fund financed by the oil companies to further mitigate and adapt to future problems, and "to prevent the companies from making any further false or misleading statements about the contribution of fossil fuel combustion to climate change."

"Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades — that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment. Enough is enough," Bonta said in a press release. "With our lawsuit, California becomes the largest geographic area and the largest economy to take these giant oil companies to court. It is time they pay to abate the harm they have caused."  

The amount of the fund is yet to be determined, and Bonta adds that the lawsuit will cite specific details as evidence that the oil companies knew their products were harmful to the environment. 

The press release highlights a 1968 Stanford Research Institute study that found fossil fuel production could lead to "significant temperature changes" by year 2000.

The press release also highlights an internal Exxon memo from 1978 stating, "[p]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical." 

Last year was one of the most profitable years for the top five oil companies, raking in nearly $200 billion in profits, according to a CNBC analysis

Ryan Meyers, senior vice president for the American Petroleum Institute, which is named in the lawsuit, called Bonta's actions a waste of taxpayer money.

"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," Meyers told the AP in a statement

Shell, on the other hand, recognized the need to address climate change.

"Addressing climate change requires a collaborative, society-wide approach," Shell told the AP. "We agree that action is needed now on climate change, and we fully support the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future."

Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states and Gov. Gavin Newsom backs Bonta’s decision, stating the lawsuit will bring justice to Californians and hold "big oil polluters accountable."

"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," Newsom said. "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."