.California’s Lawsuit Against Big Oil for Climate Deception Continues

New state laws aim to increase transparency of greenhouse gas emissions

As 2024 kicks off, an ongoing lawsuit, new state laws and a damning report from a local community-based committee will all make climate crisis news this year.

California made global news in 2023 when State Attorney General Rob Bonta filed suit against five Big Oil companies, Chevron, Shell, BP, Exxon and ConocoPhillips, alleging, according to the AG’s office: 

  • 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.

Contacted for an update, the AG’s press office stated in an email: “The Office served the defendants with the complaint and summons on November 1, 2023. On November 3, 2023, the Office filed a joint petition with the Judicial Council to coordinate our case with the pending climate deception cases filed by eight California municipalities. On December 12, 2023, California’s case was stayed pending action on the petition for coordination. The hearing on the petition is set to take place on January 25, 2024.” 

The “eight municipalities” include Oakland and Richmond, in addition to San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Imperial Beach, alongside the counties of San Mateo, Marin, and Santa Cruz. The Bay Area is home to five major oil refineries located in Richmond, Rodeo, Benicia and Martinez. The lawsuit is considered a potential bellwether in the worldwide fight to hold fossil-fuel companies accountable.

Extreme difficulties in accomplishing that goal were examined in a CalMatters investigative piece, “How Big Oil Wins in California,” published Dec. 19, exposing the cozy relationship between many California lawmakers and Big Oil. The report noted the Western States Petroleum Association and Chevron Corp. spent “a combined $15.3 million on lobbying [in 2023], more than any other lobby group.” 

The report also revealed the extent of Big Oil’s alliance with the State Building and Construction Trades Council, which also lobbies legislators to oppose many environmental laws. It quoted RL Miller of Climate Hawks Vote: “In California, our best environmental bills are being blocked by the oil industry using the building trades as ventriloquist dummies.”

The California legislature did manage to pass three significant laws in 2023, which go into effect this month. AB-631 will give the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) increased power to refer cases of violations and spills to local prosecutors and, according to ProPublica, “ask a Superior Court judge to compel operators to correct violations that might threaten public health, safety and the environment. The [CALGEM] oil and gas supervisor can also for the first time recover all response, prosecution and enforcement costs from the petroleum companies.”

SB-253, the Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act, co-sponsored by local State Sen. Nancy Skinner, makes mandatory full disclosure of the amount of climate-changing greenhouse gasses covered entities are emitting. According to a blog post by law firm David Wright Tremaine LLP, this law applies to corporations and other organizations with total annual revenues in excess of $1 billion. It requires covered entities to publicly disclose their scope 1 and scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2026, and their scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2027.

SB-261, the blog states, “applies to entities with total annual revenues in excess of $500 million.”

Perhaps most importantly, SB-253 also requires the California Air Resources Board (CARB), frequently criticized by environmental groups as reluctant to enforce regulations, “to contract with an emissions-reporting organization to develop a reporting program to receive and make publicly available the required disclosures.”

Reactions to the new laws from local environmental groups has been cautious approval, tempered with concerns implementation will be pursued. 

Speaking about SB-253, Amelia Keyes, Harvard Law Review Fellow, Richmond office of Communities for a Better Environment, said, “It’s exciting the bill got through—if it is implemented correctly. [It will provide] more disclosure, more transparency. [But] there are questions about how CARB is going to create reporting requirements..[There will be] a lot of pressure from oil companies, who will be participating in implementation.”

One way companies will try to avoid transparency, she said, is by claiming required data is “‘confidential business information.’ CARB “needs to focus on…minimizing the information being kept from the public.” The agency also needs to document the information in a way is easily accessible to California communities, she said.

Keyes also noted many fossil-fuel companies have shifted policy from climate crisis denial to “greenwashing, often obscuring the massive environmental impacts of [such things as] bio-fuels.” Oil companies “have gotten splashy headlines [for their environmental efforts], and then quietly walked them back.” 

The PDF Energy/Martinez Refinery Co., for example, has been almost continuously in the news for months for its emissions, which include 21 releases or spills of hazardous materials since November 2022.

In August 2023, the Vallejo Sun reported that, “Since 2003, the [Bay Area Air Quality Management District/BAAQMD] estimates that [a vent at the Valero Benicia refinery] was releasing about 4,000 pounds of hydrocarbons per day, far more than state regulations allow. Overall, the district found that Valero released more than 10,000 tons of excess hydrocarbons over 16 years, including 138 tons of toxic air contaminants ethylbenzene, tolyrene, zolerine and the especially carcinogenic benzene.”

Said Connie Cho, Just Transition Policy Strategist for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN),“While increased transparency and monitoring is great, what we need are laws with teeth that actually reduce emissions in refinery communities like Richmond now. 

“Over the past several decades, while other communities have seen decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, refinery communities like Richmond have seen increases in climate and health-harming emissions. Since late November, Richmond residents have experienced four separate flaring events at Chevron’s ancient Richmond refinery. We need policy that creates actual emissions reductions and tangible investments in a future beyond oil.”

The December release by BAAQMD of the 160-page “Community Emissions Reduction Plan,” the result of years of meetings, covers Richmond, San Pablo, and some unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County. It also pointed the finger at Chevron’s Richmond refinery.

“Between 2019 and 2022, there have been approximately 161 total reportable flaring events across the five Bay Area refineries. More than half of the total number of reportable flaring events, or 97 of those events, were reported by the Chevron Refinery,” the plan states.

“The Chevron Refinery is by far the largest single generator of emissions in the PTCA community for many air pollutants…the Chevron Refinery emits more fine particulate matter and sulfur dioxide than all other contributing sources in our community combined. Chevron also is the largest source of numerous toxic air contaminants, such as hydrogen cyanide, sulfuric acid, manganese, and hydrogen sulfide.”

Chevron’s San Ramon corporate headquarters was contacted for comment on issues referred to in this story. Although the media department acknowledged receipt of the request, no comments were forthcoming.

The data is out there. The laws exist. But do government agencies and the courts have the will to make deep-pocketed, multinational companies comply? 2024 may provide the answer.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great to see EBX start to offer once again some coverage of local issues that are of global relevance. This article covers a lot of ground. I offer one factual clarification: the article confuses the Marathon-Neste joint venture biofuels refinery project in Martinez with the Marathon Refining Company (MRC)/PBF/ex-Shell refinery, which is also in Martinez. The Marathon-Neste biofuel refinery was the site of the horrendous fire in November 2023, while it is the MRC/PBF/ex-Shell refinery that has been the source of the scary releases of catalyst and pet coke that are such flagrant violations of the public trust. There is a lot going on in the refinery corridor, but there is also a sad absence of investigative journalism delving into the shenanigans of the energy majors playing free and loose with our futures. Hopefully EBX will keep digging into these matters.

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    • Mr. Hughes is correct. Although PBF has floated intentions of manufacturing biofuels, it is not at this refinery. As he confirms however, its Martinez refinery HAS been repeatedly cited for violations. We have corrected the text to enhance clarity, and very much appreciate his close read of this article, and his encouragement to continue coverage of the “shenanigans” of the oil companies.

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