California's Misguided Lawsuit Against Oil Firms

“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

The state of California is suing five major oil companies – BP, ExxonMobil
, Chevron
, Shell, and ConocoPhillips
– as well as their trade group, the American Petroleum Institute.

The lawsuit, filed by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, alleges the companies knowingly deceived the public about the risks of fossil fuels, causing harm to communities and the environment. California Governor Gavin Newsom claimed “Big Oil has been lying to us for over 50 years.”

Specifically, the lawsuit points to internal company memos and reports as evidence the oil firms understood the severe consequences but continued expanding fossil fuel extraction. California alleges that this deception exacerbated climate change effects like wildfires, pollution, heat waves, and drought in California, costing billions in damage.

But this lawsuit is misguided for several reasons.

California Knew the Risks

Climate science has been clear on fossil fuel dangers for decades. California can’t claim ignorance based on oil company messaging. Oil companies may have debated or disputed the data, but the consensus risks have been mainstream since at least the 1990s.

Al Gore argued for action in 1992 in Earth in the Balance, and numerous scientific papers had made the case prior to that. California had that information yet, but how did they respond? What responsibility do they take for not acting with urgency 30-40 years ago?

Today California uses more gasoline than any state but Texas. California is more dependent on foreign oil than any other state. California is still heavily dependent on oil and oil products and has profited handsomely from extracting oil and gas in the state. Why? Because the oil companies lied to them? Really?

Fossil fuels are used heavily all over the world because they’re cheap and convenient, not because of deception. We have known about the risks for a very long time, but we continue to use them anyway.

So, the lawsuit is ridiculous because there has been ample evidence for decades that rising carbon emissions were a risk. California has never trusted Big Oil. If California claims it didn’t act with urgency because it was relying on the word of Big Oil, then I have a bridge to sell you.

The Real Reason Emissions are Rising

Moreover, the leading contributor of atmospheric carbon emissions is coal, not oil. Asia — especially China — dominates coal consumption. California’s lawsuit narrowly targets predominantly U.S. oil companies when the global challenge is far broader.

How responsible is China’s coal consumption in the overall scheme? How about overall Asia Pacific emissions, which dwarf those of the U.S. and EU?

The reason that graphic looks like that is coal burning in Asia, not lies from Big Oil. Note that emissions in the U.S. aren’t a lot higher than they were 50 years ago, and emissions from oil are a subset of overall emissions. Where, exactly, is Big Oil’s culpability in this graphic?

Serious Solutions Needed

Some of the world’s emissions are from oil. But OPEC and Russia have supplied most of the world’s oil over the past 50 years. The companies California singled out represent a small fraction of total oil consumption. This undercuts claims of their outsized culpability.

Climate change needs serious solutions through innovation and policy change, not politicized lawsuits. I expect the oil companies will litigate this strenuously. Don’t expect them to settle. Expect them to highlight the hypocrisy of those who sued, by highlighting all of the fossil fuel consumption in their lives. Point out that they do this despite knowing the risks of climate change.

Pointing the finger at Big Oil may be good politics in California, but this is political theater rather than constructive action on a complex issue.

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