Lawsuit by California Against Big Oil for Climate Deception Persists

2024 is off to a start with a range of significant developments in the climate crisis. These include an ongoing lawsuit, new state laws, and a damning report from a local community-based committee.

In 2023, the State Attorney General of California, Rob Bonta, made headlines by filing a lawsuit against five major oil companies – Chevron, Shell, BP, Exxon, and ConocoPhillips. The lawsuit, as stated by the AG’s office, accused these companies of…

    • Oil and gas executives have known for decades about the dangers of the fossil fuels they produce.
    • Industry-funded reports directly linked fossil fuel consumption to rising global temperatures and damage to our air, land, and water.
    • Oil companies intentionally suppressed that information from the public and policymakers to protect their profits, and spent billions of dollars to spread disinformation on climate change and delay our transition away from fossil fuels.
    • The deception continues today: Oil companies promote fossil fuel products as “clean” or “green” or “low-emissions” that still produce carbon pollution, and they tout their renewable fuel products that actually make up a fraction of a percent of their earnings.

According to the AG’s press office, they reached out for an update and received the following information via email: “On November 1, 2023, the Office served the defendants with the complaint and summons.

Subsequently, on November 3, 2023, we filed a joint petition with the Judicial Council to coordinate our case with the climate deception cases filed by eight California municipalities.

As of December 12, 2023, California’s case has been stayed pending action on the petition for coordination. The hearing for the petition is scheduled for January 25, 2024.”

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The group of “eight municipalities” comprises Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Imperial Beach, as well as the counties of San Mateo, Marin, and Santa Cruz.

Within the Bay Area, there are five prominent oil refineries situated in Richmond, Rodeo, Benicia, and Martinez. This lawsuit is seen as a significant indication of the global effort to hold fossil fuel companies responsible.

In a revealing investigative article titled “How Big Oil Wins in California,” published on December 19th, CalMatters shed light on the formidable challenges involved in achieving this objective. The piece exposed the close ties between numerous California legislators and major oil companies.

According to the report, in 2023, the Western States Petroleum Association and Chevron Corp. allocated a staggering $15.3 million for lobbying, surpassing all other lobbying groups in expenditure.

The report also exposed the close partnership between Big Oil and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, an organization that actively influences lawmakers to oppose various environmental regulations.

RL Miller of Climate Hawks Vote expressed her concern, stating, “In California, the oil industry is using the building trades as ventriloquist dummies to obstruct our most important environmental bills.”

In 2023, the California legislature successfully enacted three important laws, which will become effective this month. One of these laws, AB-631, will grant the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) enhanced authority.

According to ProPublica, CalGEM will now have the power to refer cases of violations and spills to local prosecutors and, if necessary, seek assistance from a Superior Court judge to ensure that operators rectify any violations that could potentially endanger public health, safety, and the environment.

Additionally, this law allows the oil and gas supervisor of CALGEM to recover all the costs associated with response, prosecution, and enforcement from the petroleum companies for the first time.

The Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act, also known as SB-253 and co-sponsored by State Sen. Nancy Skinner, aims to ensure transparency in greenhouse gas emissions. Under this law, corporations and organizations with annual revenues exceeding $1 billion will be required to disclose their emissions.

Starting in 2026, covered entities will need to publicly report their scope 1 and scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, starting in 2027, they will also have to disclose their scope 3 emissions. This legislation emphasizes the importance of accountability in addressing climate change.

According to the blog, SB-261 applies to companies that generate over $500 million in total annual revenues.

One of the key provisions of SB-253 is the requirement for the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to collaborate with an emissions-reporting organization. This collaboration aims to develop a comprehensive reporting program that will receive and disclose the necessary emissions disclosures.

Environmental groups have often criticized CARB for their perceived reluctance to enforce regulations, making this requirement an important step towards greater transparency and accountability.

Local environmental groups have cautiously approved the new laws, but they also have concerns about how the implementation will be carried out.

Amelia Keyes, a Harvard Law Review Fellow at the Richmond office of Communities for a Better Environment, expressed her excitement about SB-253, stating that if implemented correctly, it could bring about more disclosure and transparency.

However, she also raised concerns about the creation of reporting requirements by CARB and the potential pressure from oil companies involved in the implementation process.

Companies may attempt to evade transparency by labeling necessary data as “confidential business information,” according to the expert. In order to address this, CARB should prioritize efforts to minimize the amount of information withheld from the public.

Additionally, it is crucial for the agency to ensure that the documented information is readily accessible to communities in California.

According to Keyes, numerous fossil-fuel companies have transitioned their stance from denying the climate crisis to engaging in “greenwashing,” which often involves concealing the significant environmental consequences of practices like bio-fuels.

Keyes also points out that oil companies frequently gain attention for their environmental initiatives but later retract their commitments without much fanfare.

The PDF Energy/Martinez Refinery Co., for instance, has been in the news consistently over the past few months due to its emissions, despite its claims of transitioning to “renewable fuels.” Since November 2022, the company has had 21 incidents of releasing or spilling hazardous materials.

According to the Vallejo Sun in August 2023, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) estimates that the vent at the Valero Benicia refinery has been releasing approximately 4,000 pounds of hydrocarbons per day since 2003, which exceeds the state’s regulatory limits.

Over a period of 16 years, Valero has released more than 10,000 tons of excess hydrocarbons. This includes 138 tons of toxic air contaminants such as ethylbenzene, tolyrene, zolerine, and the highly carcinogenic benzene.

Connie Cho, the Just Transition Policy Strategist for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), emphasized the need for impactful legislation that can effectively reduce emissions in refinery communities like Richmond.

According to Cho, while increased transparency and monitoring are positive steps, it is crucial to have enforceable laws that can address the issue immediately.

“In recent years, while greenhouse gas emissions have decreased in many communities, refinery communities like Richmond have unfortunately witnessed an increase in emissions that harm both the climate and public health. In the past few months alone, Richmond residents have endured four separate incidents of flaring at the aging Chevron refinery.

It is imperative that we implement policies that not only result in real reductions in emissions but also prioritize tangible investments in a future that goes beyond reliance on oil.”

The BAAQMD recently released a comprehensive “Community Emissions Reduction Plan” in December. This 160-page plan, which was the culmination of years of meetings, focuses on Richmond, San Pablo, and certain unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County. Notably, the plan highlights the environmental impact of Chevron’s Richmond refinery.

According to the plan, the five Bay Area refineries have reported around 161 flaring events between 2019 and 2022. Out of these events, Chevron Refinery alone accounted for more than half of the total number, with 97 reportable flaring events.

According to the provided information, the Chevron Refinery stands as the primary emitter of emissions in the PTCA community. It surpasses all other sources combined when it comes to emitting fine particulate matter and sulfur dioxide.

Additionally, Chevron takes the lead as the biggest contributor of various toxic air contaminants, including hydrogen cyanide, sulfuric acid, manganese, and hydrogen sulfide.

I reached out to Chevron’s San Ramon corporate headquarters for their input on the matters discussed in this story. While they acknowledged receiving the request, they did not provide any comments.

2024 may hold the answer to whether government agencies and courts have the determination to enforce compliance among wealthy multinational companies, despite the availability of data and existing laws.

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