Catching Fire: An Analysis of People of the State of California v. Big Oil

California takes on big oil over climate crisis responsibility

Person holding a sign saying “There is no planet B” and an illustration of planet earth.
PHOTO: Li-An Lim / Unsplash

By: Sofia Chassomeris, SFU Student

In the summer of 2018, I looked up at the crimson sun shining through layers of smoke and smog and I thought the world was going to end. I was home in Vancouver that summer, and despite being far enough away to not experience the fires first-hand, the smoke from both California and BC was choking the air around me. I was fortunate, though; at least it wasn’t my house that was on fire, and what an outrageous thing to be grateful for. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, 2018 was one of the worst fire seasons in California and other areas of the Pacific Northwest. Yet five years later, the past looks more promising than the future. The climate disasters we are currently facing resulted from just over a century of mass industrialization and have intensified rapidly in the past 50 years. The burning of coal and oil for energy has exponentially increased the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere, absorbing and radiating heat back to the planet’s surface. This has caused the atmosphere to become increasingly hotter; consequently, lush wildlife dries out and becomes the perfect fuel for flames. Fires spread faster and farther, taking not only the land and its natural resources, but displacing families and exposing them to the harmful effects of air pollution. California has continuously experienced wildfires, droughts, and heat waves nearly every year since 2018, and the repairs and relocations have cost the state billions of dollars and thousands of residents their livelihoods. The state of California is looking at Big Oil to pay for it.

On September 15, 2023, California State Attorney General, Rob Bonta, filed a lawsuit against five of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies. Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP are the named defendants being sued for allegedly knowing about the catastrophic effects the CO2 emissions from their operations would have on the environment, and concealing information from the public. The state of California has also presented evidence proving these companies have known this information for decades, and they’ve hidden it to maximize profits. To quote an internal Exxon memo from October of 1979, “Present climatic models predict that the present trend of fossil fuel use will lead to dramatic climatic changes within the next 75 years […] the above conclusion assumes that recovery will not be feasible.” It’s safe to assume the biggest enemy of the fossil fuel industry is climate change, but it isn’t the daunting dystopia of a burning world that they fear. It’s those who stand in the way of them continuing to make money off of it. 

There have been similar, smaller cases filed from cities and municipalities across the U.S. such as Oregon, California, and the states of Rhode Island and Delaware, but this marks the first time an oil-producing state has filed a lawsuit of this kind. That California is getting involved at all is monumental, and according to Korey Silverman-Roati of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, is “a big signal to other jurisdictions around the country that they think this is a winning case.” If California wins, it will be a major loss for the oil companies, as the state has faced so much destruction due to climate change that the cost to settle will be substantially higher than with other cases in smaller states. There is also significance in the timing of this lawsuit — the U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected five appeals from ExxonMobil, Suncor, BP, Chevron, and Shell, seeking to transfer climate change-related lawsuits from the state to the federal court. In all five cases rejected by the Supreme Court, the oil companies lost in state courts. Now, in current lawsuits, these companies are forced to defend themselves in front of a jury, which claimants tend to prefer when fighting for damage compensation. Of course, this comes with more complaints from Big Oil, but it’’ because they’re getting uncomfortable; they know they’re being backed into a corner with every lawsuit that comes at them.

The defendants staunchly denied the allegations, either declining to comment or undermining the reasoning for this lawsuit. As reported by CNBC, senior vice-president of the American Petroleum Institute, Ryan Meyers went as far as to say lawsuits of this kind are “meritless” and a “waste of California taxpayer resources.” Still, the reality is that the responsibility for the climate crisis is a shared burden of both the oil companies and the state; the industry for contributing as massively as it has to climate change, and the government for not taking action against it sooner. This lawsuit isn’t meritless, either. It is the sparking of a match, and as we know too well, sparks catch fire very quickly these days. Perhaps it is time to consider stricter regulations on what corporations can and cannot do, at least in the energy sector, to ensure sustainable production and mitigate the damages the fossil fuel industry is still causing. The only thing our current system can sustain is greed. 

While switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be difficult to employ and undeniably disruptive for many, it’s crucial to the earth’s (and humanity’s) longevity, and this lawsuit is a step in the right direction. California is pushing these oil corporations to an uncomfortable position with this lawsuit, and they are not the only ones. Vancouver-based West Coast Environmental Law is on a similar path as the Sue Big Oil campaign, but this is just the beginning; it’s time other jurisdictions take note. If we increase the pressure on these corporations and keep them financially accountable, we can finally move toward mending these issues, but you can’t fix a leaking boat while it’s still on the water. There is hope for the future of the climate crisis, but only through combined effort and with common goals will we succeed.