California Gov. Gavin Newsom kicked off Climate Week with a litigation-and-legislation blitz, shoring up his green-energy credentials amid criticism that his administration has failed to walk the talk when it comes to ditching fossil fuels.
The Democratic governor jumped on the climate-lawsuit bandwagon by announcing that California has sued five major energy companies — Exxon, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Shell — arguing that their “lies and coverups” about fossil fuels have cost the state billions in damages from natural disasters and increased health care costs.
“The climate crisis, after all, is a fossil fuels crisis. Period, Full stop,” Mr. Newsom said in remarks Sunday at Climate Week NYC. “And these guys have been playing us for fools. These guys have been lying since the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and 80s. They knew.”
He also said he would sign two ambitious bills sitting on his desk. The first would require companies with annual revenues exceeding $1 billion to make emissions disclosures. The second would have firms making more than $500,000 disclose their climate-change risks and how they plan to address them.
Mr. Newsom was promptly accused of grandstanding with his lawsuit against “Big Oil” by fossil-fuel advocates who argued that climate policy should be decided by Congress, not the courts.
“The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” said American Petroleum Institute senior vice president and general counsel Ryan Meyers.
“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,” he said.
But the lawsuit won Mr. Newsom plaudits from environmental groups, a key Democratic Party constituency that has been critical of the state’s progress on transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables.
“Holding Big Oil accountable for their decades-long deception is necessary and crucial to protect California communities from the effects of the climate crisis,” said Sierra Club California Director Brandon Dawson. “By bringing this lawsuit, Governor Newsom and Attorney General Bonta are cementing California as a leader in the fight against climate change and Sierra Club California applauds these efforts.”
Mr. Newsom’s two-pronged announcement also lowered the temperature on complaints that his administration has been too gas-friendly.
Three weeks ago, the five Newsom-appointed members of the California Public Utilities Commission voted to allow Southern California Gas to expand capacity at Aliso Canyon storage facility, frustrating environmentalists who called the move a step in the wrong direction.
“Increasing storage at Aliso Canyon is intended to further enrich SoCalGas executives, not to reduce rates for our community members. It is past time for Gov. Newsom to fulfill his campaign promises and shut this dangerous facility down,” said Andrea Vega, Food & Water Watch Southern California organizer, in an Aug. 17 statement.
The State Water Resources Control Board voted last year to keep open three Southern California natural gas plants over the objections of climate groups. The state is also keeping online the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, even though Mr. Newsom had previously called for closing it.
The moves demonstrate Mr. Newsom’s struggle to avoid rolling energy blackouts as the state seeks to meet its mandate for 100% renewable and net-zero carbon by 2045.
Mr. Newsom isn’t the first to sue the fossil-fuel industry for allegedly misleading consumers on the risks of climate change — Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and about two dozen left-of-center cities beat him to it — but California’s entrée had climate groups predicting more states would follow.
Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, declared: “California just kicked open the door for every city and state in America to sue the fossil fuel industry for climate damages.”
The lawsuit claims that major oil and gas companies “knew” about dangers associated with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, but purposely hid their findings and spread “disinformation” to protect their business model and boost profits.
A Wall Street Journal report published last week found that Exxon executives “strategized over how to diminish concerns over warming temperatures,” citing internal documents turned over during litigation in New York.
InsideClimate News said in its 2015 “Exxon Knew” series that the company stoked doubt about climate research that “its own scientists had confirmed,” while advocates for the industry argue that such research mirrored the publicly available findings of the mainstream scientific community.
If Exxon “knew,” then critics say so did California, a top-10 oil-producing state.
“Climate science has been clear on fossil fuel dangers for decades,” chemical engineer Robert Rapier said Monday in a Forbes op-ed. “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.”
The climate-lawsuit effort stumbled out of the gate when a federal judge threw out a lawsuit in 2018 filed by New York City, saying climate change was a matter for the legislative and executive branches to decide.
The New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of Exxon in 2019 on charges brought by former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the organizer of a now-defunct multi-state effort called AGs United for Clean Power.
States bringing lawsuits have fought to keep the cases in state court, while oil and gas companies have sought to have them moved to federal court.
Last year, the Suffolk Superior Court ruled against Exxon’s motion to dismiss the case filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, said there are “dozens of copycat climate lawsuits, and the only surprise about the latest is that it’s taken the state of California so long to file.”
“There are several reasons why California is filing another nuisance lawsuit: publicity for Governor Newsom and Attorney General Bonta; giving mainstream media another chance to repeat the same bogus claims they have published every time one of these suits is filed; and costing the defendants tens of millions of dollars in legal fees,” Mr. Ebell said.