Big Oil Faces Profit Seizure in California’s Landmark Greenwashing Suit

SAN JOSE – In a significant escalation of its fight against climate change, California has announced plans to seize the “illegally obtained profits” of major oil companies. This move is part of an amended lawsuit claiming that these companies have falsely advertised the environmental sustainability of their products and fossil fuels in general. The announcement was made by California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Monday, marking a critical step in the state’s ongoing battle against corporate greenwashing.

A Decades-Long Deception

The lawsuit, originally launched in September 2023, targets some of the world’s largest oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP. The complaint alleges that these companies have engaged in a decades-long “climate deception campaign” through public statements and marketing efforts aimed at denying and creating doubt about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. According to the lawsuit, these companies have known about the link between fossil fuels and climate change since at least the 1960s.

Leveraging California’s AB1366 Law

The updated complaint leverages California law AB1366, which authorizes the Attorney General to seek disgorgement of profits in cases of unfair competition and false advertising. Under this law, companies found in violation would be required to deposit the profits obtained through these violations into a new Victims of Consumer Fraud Restitution Fund. This fund would be used to provide restitution to victims of consumer fraud in the state.

The amendment to the lawsuit also includes several new instances of alleged greenwashing by the oil companies. The state claims that these companies have misleadingly portrayed themselves and their fossil fuel products as environmentally friendly or less harmful than they actually are.

Examples of Alleged Greenwashing

One example cited in the lawsuit is Exxon’s marketing of its “Synergy” fuels as “clean” or “cleaner,” highlighting the product’s CO2 reduction in advertisements. Similarly, the complaint points to Chevron’s marketing of its “Techron” fuel additive, which is promoted as having “cleaning power” that minimizes emissions. Chevron’s marketing materials also focus on “advancing a lower carbon future,” which the lawsuit argues is likely to mislead reasonable consumers into believing that Chevron’s fuels are environmentally beneficial or benign.

California’s Determination

Attorney General Bonta emphasized the seriousness of the allegations, stating, “This much is clear: Big Oil continues to mislead us with their lies and mistruths, and we won’t stand for that. Their ongoing egregious misconduct is damning. We will continue to vigorously prosecute this matter and ensure that Big Oil pays to abate the harm they have caused, and we will recover ill-gotten gains that will benefit Californians.”

Industry Response

In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for Shell stated that the company does not believe climate change should be addressed in the courtroom. Instead, Shell advocates for “smart policy from government and action from all sectors” as the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress. The spokesperson added, “The Shell Group’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades. We agree that action is needed now on climate change, and we fully support the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future. As we supply the vital energy the world needs today, we continue to reduce our emissions and help customers reduce theirs.”

A Model for Accountability

California’s aggressive stance against greenwashing by major oil companies sets a precedent for other states and countries grappling with similar issues. By holding these corporations accountable for their misleading claims, California aims to not only secure financial restitution for its citizens but also to send a strong message about the importance of corporate responsibility in addressing climate change.

As the world watches, the outcome of this landmark case could pave the way for more stringent regulations and greater transparency in how companies advertise the environmental impact of their products. This case underscores the growing recognition of the critical role that legal frameworks play in combating climate change and protecting consumers from deceptive practices.

California’s decision to seek the disgorgement of profits from major oil companies in this greenwashing suit is a bold and necessary step. It highlights the urgent need for accountability and transparency in the fight against climate change, setting an example for others to follow. As the first state to take such decisive action, California continues to lead the way in environmental stewardship and consumer protection.

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