California Attorney General Investigates the Oil and Gas Industry’s Role in Plastic Pollution, Subpoenas Exxon

The investigation mirrors those of attorneys general across the country who have taken legal action against the fossil fuel industry for its role in climate change.

Large amounts of trash and plastic refuse collect in Ballona Creek after a major rain storm in Culver City, California. Credit: Citizen of the Planet/UIG via Getty Images
Large amounts of trash and plastic refuse collect in Ballona Creek after a major rain storm in Culver City, California. Credit: Citizen of the Planet/UIG via Getty Images

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The oil and gas industry has a new battle to fight with California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s first-of-its-kind investigation into their role in the global plastics crisis—and it looks a lot like one they’ve been fighting over climate change.

Bonta on Thursday announced his investigation and said that his office had issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil over its role in the plastics crisis. By Friday, environmental advocates from California to New York were applauding, and environmental lawyers were pondering the similarities between Bonta’s investigation and ongoing efforts by states and cities to hold the oil and gas industry accountable in the courts for climate change.

Judith Enck, president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator, called the investigation “very significant” because it has “the potential to finally hold plastic producers accountable for the immense environmental damage caused by plastics.” It will also “address the ongoing deception of claiming that plastics are recyclable when, in fact, less than 10 percent are actually recycled,” she said.


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Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School and the former director of the school’s Environmental Law Center, said that if Bonta’s investigation seems familiar, it should.

“We have seen this movie before,” Parenteau said. “This is a page from the same book that attorneys general have taken with climate investigations … related to carbon pollution.”

None of the lawsuits by cities or states against oil companies have yet to return verdicts or court decisions that hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change, he said. But the oil and gas companies have not been able to stop the lawsuits, many of which continue to work their way through the courts.

“Now, the California attorney general is moving into a similar kind of investigation in terms of plastic pollution, and there are some obvious connections—what the oil companies are doing to the climate, and what the oil companies are doing to the oceans,” Parenteau said.

In 2019, a New York judge cleared Exxon of investor fraud allegations, but wrote: “nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve Exxon from responsibility for contributing to climate change.”

ExxonMobil responded to Bonta’s announcement with a denial.

“We reject the allegations made by the Attorney General’s office in its press release,” the company said in a written statement. “We share society’s concerns and are collaborating with governments, including the State of California, communities, and other industries to support projects around the world to improve waste management and circularity.”

The industry uses the term circularity to describe its vision of recycling and reusing plastics.

The American Chemistry Council, a leading pro-plastics lobby, also fought back. 

“We strongly disagree with the portrayal of our industry by Attorney General Bonta,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the council, in a written statement. “As we’ve repeatedly emphasized, plastics belong in our economy, not our environment.

“Rather than losing time and resources responding to misleading portrayals of our industry and misguided initiatives that delay real progress, we want to remain focused on ongoing efforts to improve plastics recycling and provide meaningful results.” 

Plastic pollution has found its way to the highest mountains and deepest parts of the ocean; into the bellies of marine mammals, the placenta of new mothers and human blood.

In March, the United Nations described plastics as a “triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution,” at a meeting where the U.N. Environmental Assembly put the world on track to forge, for the first time, a legally binding global agreement to curb plastic pollution.

Bonta made his announcement with the Pacific Ocean in the background along a southern California beach, which he said needs daily cleaning of plastic litter.

Much like what Inside Climate News and later the Los Angeles Times reported in 2015, based on a trove of internal Exxon documents showing that the oil company understood the science of global warming, predicted its catastrophic consequences, and then spent millions to promote misinformation denying those facts, Bonta is saying the industry has misled the public about plastics.

The industry has made false claims that have minimized the public’s understanding of the harmful consequences of plastic products and even whether plastics can be recycled, he said.

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In the 1980s, Bonta said, the plastics industry, including major fossil fuel and petrochemical companies, began “an aggressive and deceptive campaign that we could recycle our way out of the plastics waste problem that was emerging at that time. The fact is, it was all a big ruse.

“The truth is,” he said, “the vast majority of plastics cannot be recycled.”

He said the investigation would “focus on this half-century campaign of deception, and the ongoing harm to the state, our residents and natural resources.  “We are going to target companies that have caused and exacerbated the global plastics crisis,” he said. “We will not hesitate to hold these companies accountable if the law was violated.”

Parenteau said it’s too soon to say whether the investigation will result in legal action in the form of a civil or criminal case. But it could result in either, he said.

“We know from past experience the AG is likely to find evidence” of misleading statements in advertising and annual reports, he said.

It will also likely help the public and consumers better understand the nature of the plastics problem, and their own role in it, he said.

As an educational tool, the investigation could help rally Californians around legislation to fight plastics pollution and support a November ballot measure environmental organizations are backing to reduce single-use plastic packaging and foodware across the state, called the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Voter Act, said Anja Brandon, U.S. plastics policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group.

Bonta’s investigation could also inspire other states or the federal government to take similar action, Brandon said.

“The attorney general’s announcement is an unmistakable signal to the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries that there will be no turning back on this issue,” she said. “They will be held accountable.”