California Leads Nation with Greenhouse Gas Emissions Law, Climate Lawsuit Targeting Big Oil

Interview with Laura Deehan, state director with Environment California, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

California is the fifth biggest economy in the world, so what happens there has an outsize impact on the planet. The state is also one of the biggest oil producers in the U.S.  The California legislature recently passed a bill requiring large companies that operate in the state to release their greenhouse gas emission totals, as well as those that come from activities like employee business travel, the most sweeping mandate of its kind in the nation.

And on Sept. 15, California Gov. Gavin Newsom filed a lawsuit against the world’s five biggest oil companies for more than 50 years of deception, cover-up and damage that have cost California taxpayers billions of dollars in health and environmental impacts.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Laura Deehan, state director of the group Environment California. Here she talks about these two major climate initiatives and their potential impact on the state and beyond.

LAURA DEEHAN: Just over a week ago, California became the biggest — by far — state or entity to sue oil companies for their role in creating climate change, in creating the destruction that we’re seeing all around us. They’ve basically taken a lot of the different lawsuits that have already been filed – from young people in Montana, to cities like the city of Santa Clara.

Other states have also filed similar lawsuits, like the state of Rhode Island – but they’ve taken all the different types of lawsuits that have been filed against the oil companies for their role in contributing to the climate crisis and rolled them into one. So they’re saying that they’re responsible for creating a public nuisance, that they engaged in untrue or misleading advertising, misleading environmental marketing, fraudulent business practices and violating policies around their duty to warn consumers about the risks associated with their products. All of the different types of lawsuits were rolled into one and they’ve taken on the five biggest oil companies: Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and Conoco Phillips, as well as the American Petroleum Institute.

The state is proposing that there be an abatement fund created that basically would be equivalent to the cost that these oil companies have incurred for the state of California.

For all the past costs — we’re talking about cleaning up the oil wells that we have in the state. or dealing with the wildfire and the sea level rise that we’re already seeing and already having to invest money in, putting up sea walls and huge, huge cost from wildfire mitigation and addressing that.

But also would be used for setting ourselves up to be resilient in the face of climate change, but also to stave off the worst impacts. There’s a lot that our state could be doing right now. We’re already doing a lot, but we could be doing a lot more to accelerate away from dependence on fossil fuels. So, the idea of the abatement fund, as it’s written in the lawsuit, is proposing to create resources that could be used to help transition to 100 percent clean energy as fast as we can, to invest in clean transportation so we can stop having to buy gasoline. We can instead rely on alternative transportation sources or clean vehicles much faster.

MELINDA TUHUS: Laura Deehan, in addition to this lawsuit, California just passed a very important bill that will require large emitters of greenhouse gases to actually release the data on those emissions. Can you explain what’s involved?

LAURA DEEHAN: What it does is require that big companies disclose their climate emissions – their global warming pollution – and it’s using the internationally recognized systems for doing that and so it’s a really strong policy.

The really exciting thing is that last week, during Climate Week in New York, Gov. Newsom announced that he plans to sign that bill into law. There’s been a lot of attention on that because these companies that operate in California operate all around the country and all around the world, so requiring this level of disclosure has really big impacts beyond our state borders. That will have national and international implications.

And then there’s one bill that’s very controversial, where actually, we just released a new resource that shows where all of California’s oil wells are. We were a major oil producer, but that industry is in decline right now. And oil companies have too often not taken the responsibility of cleaning up the oil wells when they come to the end of their life.

Now we have more than 5,000 oil wells that have been orphaned; they aren’t owned by any company and it’s fallen to the state to take the responsibility to clean them up. These are oil wells that are leaking huge quantities of methane. And there are almost 70,000 wells that are at risk of being orphaned. They’re idle so they’re no longer getting used. So, we just put out a map that shows where these are. Many of them are quite close to rivers and also to drinking water supplies.

So, it’s a big health concern as well as an environmental concern. And there’s a bill sitting on the governor’s desk that would require that any time these idle wells are sold that the company buying them has adequate financial protection so if they go bankrupt, someone is going to pay to clean up that mess; it’s not going to fall to the taxpayer.

For more information, visit Environment California’s website at

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