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California joins Imperial Beach in holding energy companies liable for climate change

California’s decision to sue five major oil companies is welcome news for environmentalists, but the state isn’t breaking new ground. Imperial Beach took legal action six years ago. KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson has details.<br/>

California’s decision to sue five major oil companies is welcome news for environmentalists, but the state is not breaking new ground.

Imperial Beach took legal action six years ago against more than three dozen oil and coal companies including Chevron, Exxon Mobile, ConocoPhillips, and Shell.

San Diego’s embattled coastal community of Imperial Beach joined Marin and San Mateo counties in 2017 in asking the major energy companies for billions of dollars in property damage costs linked to climate change.


The South Bay city is already feeling the impact of rising sea levels.

“We’re surrounded by water,” said Paloma Aguirre, the mayor of Imperial Beach. “We have the estuary to the south, the Pacific coast to the west and the bay to the north. And projections show that we are going to be severely impacted by sea level rise.”

The lawsuit states greenhouse gas emissions cause sea level rise which leads to coastal flooding, beach erosion and the need to rebuild wastewater and stormwater systems. It also alleges the companies knew there would be climate-related impacts and the firms willfully ignored that.

“They knew that the impacts from burning fossil fuels would be severe. And they knew the consequences that would result from that, and they still, you know, decided to keep that from the public,” Aguirre said.

The legal action seeks relief from the energy companies for damage caused by ongoing and future flooding.


The lawsuit remains active despite several attempts by the oil industry to have the legal challenge dismissed or moved out of state court.

California’s top legal officer, Attorney General Rob Bonta, is now suing five major oil companies for misleading the public about climate change.

The state lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court identifies Exxon Mobile, Shell, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips as plaintiffs who allegedly misled the public for decades about climate change and the role fossil fuels play.

California argues the fossil fuel emissions are directly linked to record heat, wildfires, severe weather and sea level rise.

Peer reviewed research indicates climate related disasters will become more frequent and more intense as the planet’s temperature warms.

The legal action may be late for some climate activists, but it is still welcome.

“I think it’s really important that we hold the polluters accountable for the damage that they’ve done,” said Masada Disenhouse, the executive director of SanDiego350. “And even though it takes some time, I think it’s really significant that a state the size of California is joining this effort.”

The California lawsuit alleges oil and gas executives have known about the dangers of greenhouse gas emission since the 1960s. The suit says those executives cast doubt, spread disinformation and suppressed information that could have been helpful for policy makers.

An Exxon official told National Public Radio that the company knows "climate change is real, and we have an entire business dedicated to reducing emissions — both our own and others."

Scientists say the world is running out of time to slow global warming.