California Cities, Counties Sue Oil Companies over Climate Change
September 22, 2017
Timothy Cama / The Hill & Natasha Geiling / ThinkProgress
San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., are suing five major oil companies, blaming them for the effects of climate change. The cities announced Wednesday they each filed a lawsuit in their respective county courts against Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., ExxonMobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and BP. The lawsuits by add to an emerging legal strategy to try to hold individual fossil fuel companies responsible for rising sea levels, extreme weather and other effects of human-induced climate change.
San Francisco, Oakland Sue Five of
World's Biggest Oil Companies over Climate Change
Timothy Cama / The Hill
(September 20, 2017) – San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., are suing five major oil companies, blaming them for the effects of climate change.
The cities announced Wednesday they each filed a lawsuit in their respective county courts against Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., ExxonMobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and BP.
The lawsuits by two of California's largest cities add to an emerging legal strategy to try to hold individual fossil fuel companies responsible for rising sea levels, extreme weather and other effects of human-induced climate change.
"These fossil fuel companies profited handsomely for decades while knowing they were putting the fate of our cities at risk," San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera (D) said in a statement.
"Instead of owning up to it, they copied a page from the Big Tobacco playbook. They launched a multi-million dollar disinformation campaign to deny and discredit what was clear even to their own scientists: global warming is real, and their product is a huge part of the problem," he continued.
"These companies knew fossil fuel-driven climate change was real, they knew it was caused by their products and they lied to cover up that knowledge to protect their astronomical profits," said Barbara Parker (D), Oakland's city attorney.
"The harm to our cities has commenced and will only get worse," she said.
The attorneys cite company and industry documents they say show oil companies knew about the risks of climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions, but chose to publicly sow doubts about.
The cities sit on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay, which has already seen rising water levels due to climate change. The city attorneys say that further increases in sea level would inundate properties and cause billions of dollars worth of damage.
The lawsuits are far from the first attempt to sue fossil fuel companies for climate change, but previous actions have not been successful. A 2008 lawsuit by an Alaska village, for example, was dismissed because the federal court ruled that the Clean Air Act overrode any public nuisance claim.
But just two months ago, Marin and San Mateo counties, also in Northern California, sued some major oil companies in state court using similar arguments.
Chevron said it welcomes opportunities to fight climate change, but the cities' lawsuits are not constructive.
"Chevron welcomes serious attempts to address the issue of climate change, but these suits do not do that," the company said in a statement.
"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement and action. Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory and economic priorities."
"The claims in these lawsuits are without merit," said Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri. "We will vigorously defend ourselves against them."
California Communities Are Suing 37
Fossil Fuel Companies over Climate Damages
Natasha Geiling / ThinkProgress
The US is about to lose a trillion dollars in coastal property values
Trump isn't helping.
(July 19, 2017) -- Two California counties and one California city have filed a lawsuit against 37 of the world's biggest fossil fuel producers, seeking payment for damages brought by climate change.
The three localities are all located along California's coast, and could see as much as 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, according to a 2012 report commissioned by governors from California, Oregon, and Washington.
In San Mateo county alone -- the most at-risk county in California for sea level rise, according to a Climate Central report, and one of the counties involved in the lawsuit -- sea level rise threatens more than $21 billion dollars worth of property.
Alongside San Mateo, Marin County and the city of Imperial Beach filed separate complaints with the California Superior Court, arguing that 37 coal, oil, and gas companies knew about the harm their products posed to the planet and continued to undermine and obfuscate the dangers of climate change.
The localities suing the fossil fuel companies hope to hold them accountable for their carbon emissions, and the subsequent damage that those emissions have caused -- and will cause -- to the communities.
"The environmental harm these companies knowingly caused to our precious shorelines, and the entire world, and their deliberate efforts to conceal those frightening truths, jeopardizes the public's health and places the financial burden of those consequences on the taxpayers," San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley said in a statement.
The complaint alleges that the 37 companies named as defendants -- through extraction, promotion, and marketing of fossil fuels -- have accounted for approximately 20 percent of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane pollution released between 1965 and 2015. Specific companies named include Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and Peabody Energy, among others.
It isn't the first time fossil fuel companies have been taken to court over a common law claim. In this case, the plaintiffs are making a claim of public nuisance, which is legally defined as something causing widespread harm to a community. Public nuisance claims were brought against tobacco companies in the mid-1990s, which ultimately resulted in a $365.5 billion settlement to recoup Medicaid costs associated with treating smokers.
Public nuisance claims as they relate to climate change have seen limited success in the past. That is due in part to the difficulty associated with linking a particular harm to a particular actor, and in part because courts have found, at least at the federal level, that the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions displaces any kind of public nuisance claim through the court.
But according to Michael Burger, executive director for the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, the lawsuits in California come as close to the tobacco public nuisance claims as any climate litigation in history.
"It's really the degree to which these tort claims rely on this long history of corporate malfeasance and active collusion of industry to hide science, to obfuscate understanding, and to prevent government regulations from something that it appears to be well-aware ought to be regulated," Burger said.
The California localities might also face an easier road than past public nuisance claims, in part because of the increased scientific evidence linking climate change to sea level rise, and an emerging understanding of fossil fuel efforts to hide climate science from the public.
In 2015, investigations by both The Los Angeles Timesand InsideClimate News found that ExxonMobil was aware of climate science for decades but continued to fund public misinformation campaigns and, potentially, misled investors about the threats climate change posed to their assets.
To really become analogous with the public nuisance claims that eventually resulted in the multi-billion dollar tobacco settlement, more cities, counties, or even states would eventually need to file their own lawsuits or join onto one larger lawsuit. But depending on how the suits in California move forward, Burger sees the potential for more cities and states to follow as a distinct possibility.
"The prospect of that kind of groundswell of state-based litigation would further the analogy to the tobacco litigation and perhaps represent the best chance of getting industry to buy into the idea that some kind of comprehensive settlement would be appropriate," he said.
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