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Clash of The Titans: California v. Big Oil

by Joel F. Martin, SanDiego350 Climate Writer

Gas station with a "sued" stamp over it

On September 16, 2023, California sued Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron (the largest oil and gas companies doing business in California) for misleading the public about climate change. The lawsuit was filed in the Superior Court of the State of California, not in federal court. I just finished reading the 135 page complaint and, I never thought that I would say this, it’s a must read. It’s a compelling, well written document that claims more than 5 decades of wrongdoing by the oil companies and various front entities and it backs up those claims with a mountain of hard, irrefutable evidence. Furthermore, it provides an inside look at climate science research within big oil and shows that the industry’s own predictions were identical in all material respects with those of independent academic researchers. Big oil understood as early as the 1950s that their products were causing global temperatures to increase and that there would be catastrophic consequences. There was never any doubt.

In this article, I will give you a summary of the filing and some highlights. The information and quotes are drawn from the complaint, a link for which can be found at the end of this article. A huge array of original source documents are cited in the complaint along with links to the documents themselves. It’s a cornucopia of information for climate activists. Information not found in the lawsuit is explicitly referenced.

In brief, California claims that, “Defendants’ Concealments and Misrepresentations Regarding the Dangers of Fossil Fuel Products Encouraged Continued Use of Fossil Fuels and Discouraged Concerted Action on Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” and that such deceit is ongoing. The state claims that it has been harmed by a lengthy list of injuries, including, extreme heat, drought, wildfires, sea level rise and ecosystem destruction among others. The state goes on to cite the causes of action (i.e., the purported laws broken), which range from being a public nuisance to false advertising to natural resource destruction to strict and negligent products liability. The state is asking for a jury trial to determine compensation for damages, prohibition of further damages, and the establishment of an abatement fund.

If this sounds familiar, it comes from the play book that California and other states used against big tobacco. The parallels are uncanny. For years, big tobacco denied the harmful effects of tobacco, then spread doubt on the medical research and then “greenwashed” its cigarettes with charcoal filters and low tar claims. As you’ll see, the narrative is almost identical for big oil. Big tobacco cried crocodile tears that their products were legally sold and that the state benefitted from those sales. Big oil has already started doing the same thing. The problem that both industries face is that you can’t knowingly sell a dangerous product, legal or not, without consequences.  Under California law, someone who designs, manufactures or sells a defective product is strictly liable for injuries regardless of whether the defendant was negligent.

To build upon the parallels with big tobacco, it’s useful to look at what they knew and when they knew it. Per the lawsuit, documents unearthed in 2015 by journalists at Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, showed that big oil had secretly known about the potential effects of greenhouse gas emissions since the 1950s. In a 1954 report to the American Petroleum Institute (API) (a defendant funded by the big oil companies), California Institute of Technology researchers wrote that fossil fuels had caused carbon dioxide levels to increase by 5% since 1840, a finding that was independently confirmed by researchers at a company that is now part of Exxon. In 1959, nuclear physicist and ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, Edward Teller warned industry executives that, “a temperature rise corresponding to 10[%] increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the ice cap and submerge [a]ll the coastal cities.”

At the API’s national meeting in 1965, the group’s president, Frank Izard, addressed the leaders of the petroleum industry and related information from a recent report, saying “[o]ne of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts.” He went on to say that, “pollution from internal combustion engines is so serious, and is growing so fast, that an alternative non-polluting means of powering automobiles, buses, and trucks is likely to become a national necessity.” Though the industry’s own predictions from the sixties are eerily accurate they improved further as time passed.

Scientists at the petroleum companies and API continued their own research into GHG driven climate change. Here is a timeline of the results of those activities based on a few excerpts from the complaint.

  • 1969 – Stanford Research institute gives API a prediction of 370 ppm carbon dioxide by 2000—a stunningly accurate projection versus an actual concentration of 369.64 ppm.
  • 1977 – an Exxon scientist gave a presentation to executives reporting that “current scientific opinion overwhelmingly favors attributing atmospheric carbon dioxide increase to fossil fuel consumption” and that doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide would, “produce a mean temperature increase of 2°C to 3°C over most of the earth,” with two to three times as much warming at the poles.
  • 1979 – an Exxon memorandum stated that, “[t]he present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050. … The potential problem is great and urgent.”
  • 1979 – API and its members create a task force to monitor and share cutting edge climate research
  • 1979 – API task force asserts that warming will likely go undetected until approximately 2000 due to masking by a natural cooling trend that would revert by 1990
  • 1980 – Climate expert J. Laurman gives a presentation to API stating that, “there is strong empirical evidence that [the carbon dioxide] rise [was] caused by anthropogenic release of CO2, mainly from fossil fuel burning.” He added that a likely trajectory would result in: a 2.5°C increase by 2038 resulting in “bring[] world economic growth to a halt,” and a “5°C RISE (2067): GLOBALLY CATASTROPHIC EFFECTS.” (sic)
  • 1980 – an Exxon memorandum states that “by around 2060, atmospheric carbon dioxide could double ‘most likely’ resulting in global warming of approximately 3.0 ± 1.5°C.” The memo goes on to say that much lower predictions were “not held in high regard by the scientific community” and that “some adaptive measures would cost no more than ‘a few percent’ of Gross National Product.”
  • 1981 – Exxon’s Scoping Study on CO2 states that “energy conservation or shifting to renewable energy sources[] represent the only options that might make sense.”
  • 1981 – an internal Exxon memorandum says that “it is distinctly possible that [Exxon Planning Division’s] scenario will later produce effects that will indeed be catastrophic …”
  • 1982 – an Exxon memorandum designated “restricted to Exxon personnel and not [to be] distributed externally” warned of “potentially catastrophic effects …” and that “[a]ll biological systems are likely to be affected,”. The Director of Exxon’s Theoretical and Mathematical Laboratory reiterates that Exxon’s internal research on climate modeling confirms consensus views.
  • 1988 – A Shell working group issues a confidential internal report, “The Greenhouse Effect” that acknowledges global warming’s anthropogenic nature and warns of the effect of sea level rise on its commercial facilities.
  • 1991 – a researcher for an Exxon subsidiary states to an audience of engineers that greenhouse gasses are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels. … Nobody disputes this fact.”

This timeline confirms that big oil companies were never in doubt about their role as the dominant source of greenhouse gasses and it further demonstrates that the industry’s projections of global warming matched those of external researchers from the very beginning. Certainly, big oil bracketed its projections but the general trends and the magnitude of the projected effects were accepted across the entire industry. What is exceptionally spooky is a speculative yet prescient scenario from a 1998 internal Shell report as excerpted below.

In 2010, a series of violent storms caused extensive damage to the eastern coast of the US. Although it is not clear whether the storms are caused by climate change, people are not willing to take further chances. The insurance industry refuses to accept liability, … two successive IPCC reports since 1995 have reinforced the human connection to climate change … a coalition of environmental NGOs brings a class-action suit against the US government and fossil-fuel companies on the grounds of neglecting what scientists (including their own) have been saying for years: that something must be done. (emphasis added)

Knowing what they did, what did Big Oil do? They started a colossal campaign of deception to spread doubt about climate science and to frighten citizens that they would suffer economically if serious steps were taken to combat climate change. In 1998, Exxon’s public affairs manager, Joseph Carlson, stated in an internal memo that the “Exxon Position” was to, “emphasize uncertainty …” and “[r]esist the overstatement and sensationalization of potential Greenhouse effect which could lead to noneconomic development of non fossil resources.”

Professor Martin Hoffert, a former Exxon scientist expressed regret over Exxon’s “climate science denial program campaign”, stating that, “The advertisements that Exxon ran in major newspapers raising doubt about climate change were contradicted by the scientific work we had done and continue to do. Exxon was publicly promoting views that its own scientists knew were wrong, and we knew that because we were the major group working on this.”

In a deft public relations maneuver, Exxon released a 1996 publication entitled, “Global Warming: Who’s Right? Facts about a debate that’s turned up more questions than answers.” The report described the greenhouse effect as, “unquestionably real and a good thing.” Furthermore, contradicting their own internal science, the report states that the temperature rise since the late nineteenth century was due to “natural fluctuations that occur over long periods of time.” In the same year, API released an extensive report that argued falsely that “no conclusive — or even strongly suggestive — scientific evidence exists that human activities are significantly affecting sea levels, rainfall, surface temperature or the intensity and frequency of storms” and that “facts don’t support the arguments for restraining oil use.”

As Naomi Oreskes puts it in her book, The Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, “The industry had realized that you could create controversy by simply asking questions.” Big Oil spun their position in a simple, folksy, non-technical way that would appeal to the status quo. Exxon CEO Lee Raymond put it this way at the 1997 World Petroleum Congress, “[L]et’s agree there’s a lot we really don’t know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond … It’s bad public policy to impose very costly regulations and restrictions when their need has yet to be proven.” 

The petroleum industry put their might and money behind creating doubt. Exxon, Chevron and API developed a 1998 plan wherein “Victory will be achieved when … average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science” and “recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom’”. They paid for a series of “advertorials” in The New York Times that questioned climate science while attempting to scare people by raising concerns about “a big run-up in energy prices” and “a substantial loss of U.S. jobs and manufacturing capacity, …” Additional misleading statements appeared in paid advertisements in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other news outlets

As doubts about human-caused global warming became less tenable, Big Oil began a campaign of “greenwashing” wherein petroleum products started being portrayed as “green” and the petroleum industry started to portray itself as a climate-friendly industry that is deeply engaged in finding solutions to climate change. The industry started peddling its products as “low-carbon,” “clean” and “emissions-reducing” in the same way that the tobacco industry began to advertise cigarettes as “low-tar” and “light” to confuse consumers. Furthermore, the API has been promoting natural gas as “part of the solution” and that “natural gas and oil [] powers and supports modern living … with lower emissions.” (This advertising ignores the fact that natural gas is mostly methane, a roughly 28 times by weight more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, which, when burned, produces carbon dioxide anyway.)

The lawsuit also points out that Big Oil falsely portrays itself as a leader in green innovation and investment but this is not supported by data. As stated in the filing, Exxon has a goal of producing 10,000 barrels of biofuels per day by 2025. That sounds like a lot to the average news consumer but this production will amount to only about 0.2% of Exxon’s refinery capacity. In a similar vein, Chevron’s investments from 2010 to 2018 in “low-carbon” energy sources represented only 0.2% of the company’s capital investment during that period. In 2019, BP touted itself as “one of the major wind energy businesses in the US” when it “only owned about 1% of the installed wind capacity in the U.S.” The hard numbers show that Big Oil is spending just enough on alternative energy to lubricate its advertising campaigns.

How the lawsuit will play out is unclear but if the battle against big tobacco provides a rubric it will be a long drawn-out process. According to a timeline aired by the PBS show Frontline, the first settlement against big tobacco occurred after 40 years of litigation. The negotiated settlement avoided a jury-determined verdict. The tobacco companies agreed to pay the states (over time) an estimated $206 billion and to finance a $1.5 billion anti-smoking campaign. Beyond the financial payments, the tobacco settlement only restricts certain forms of advertising. Litigation put a dent in tobacco industry profits but the industry rebounded by pivoting to e-cigarettes in the US and to promoting its products in the third world. For reference, the five defendants in the California Big Oil lawsuit carry a much bigger stick than big tobacco — they earn annual revenue of approximately $265 billion(according to the NYSE online database) versus revenues for the six biggest tobacco firms of roughly $55 billion (according to the National Institutes of Health).

In the end, tobacco companies conceded that their products cause cancer and respiratory diseases. If Big Oil follows the same path and concedes that their products cause global warming, that admission would be a significant win in the battle for the hearts and minds of the public and would put a damper on climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists. Perhaps there will be an agreement to put warning signs at gas stations like there are on cigarette packs. Even if the lawsuit doesn’t result in a large monetary settlement, it’s a way to increase visibility and press coverage.

The lawsuit demonstrates that Big Oil has always known a great deal about climate change and its ramifications. Thankfully, one of the predictions in the 1998 Shell Oil report is actually promising. As they put it: “A social reaction to the use of fossil fuels grows, and individuals become ‘vigilante environmentalists’ in the same way, a generation earlier, they had become fiercely anti-tobacco. Direct-action campaigns against companies escalate. Young consumers, especially, demand action.” That’s something that we can get behind.

Kind suggestions, comments and topics of interest are welcome. Joel can be reached at:


Link to the filed legal complaint:

The Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Bloomsbury Press 2010

Frontline: Inside the Tobacco Deal,

Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement:

Statista Tobacco Revenue Projections: leading tobacco company worldwide,around the world that year.