Top lawyers for Oakland and San Francisco in California announced yesterday that they filed lawsuits against five of the world's biggest oil companies for damages related to climate change.
Barbara Parker, Oakland city attorney, said the legal action is meant to make the companies pay the “cost of protecting the people and the property of Oakland.” And Dennis Herrera, San Francisco's city attorney, said the case is part of the municipality's long-term effort to address the costs of sea-level rise.
“Now we're going to ensure that those responsible for the problem are held to account,” Herrera said.
In court papers, the cities argue that the defendants — BP PLC, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC — have put citizens and public property at risk.
Both cities want the companies to pay for climate change adaptation programs, which would include the construction of sea walls and raising low-lying buildings exposed to rising tides.
The lawsuits are “public nuisance” cases. It's the type of litigation that legal experts say may become more common as coastal cities and waterlogged counties draw the connection between rising waters and the burning of coal, oil and natural gas. Two California counties and a separate city, also in California, filed similar lawsuits in July (Climatewire, July 18).
Parker said in an interview that her office has been mulling such a lawsuit for about a year and that it couldn't be delayed any longer.
“We can't wait until it's upon us,” Parker said of increasing water levels. “That's the urgency of the situation.”
The defendants “promoted fossil fuels and fossil fuel products for unlimited use in massive quantities with knowledge of the hazard that such use would create,” the San Francisco suit says. The Oakland complaint makes the same argument.
Both lawsuits draw inspiration from litigation brought against tobacco companies in the 1990s. The cases accused the industry of promoting a deadly product even though insiders knew smoking was dangerous.
Asked why she chose to make sea-level rise the focus of the case, Parker said it is a signal of climate change that's easy to understand.
“That's what you can clearly see, and it's been proven, and you can see it every day,” she said. “We have a very simple and straightforward case.”
The defendants did not warm to the new paperwork.
“Chevron welcomes serious attempts to address the issue of climate change, but these suits do not do that,” the company said.
A spokesman for Royal Dutch Shell called climate change a “complex societal challenge” to be addressed by governments, “not by the courts.”
Similarly, an Exxon spokesman said the cases lack merit. A ConocoPhillips spokesman declined to comment, citing a practice against discussing active cases. And BP did not respond to an emailed request.
The court papers filed Tuesday night provide maps of both cities showing which buildings are expected to be underwater by 2100. The Oakland airport is in the flood zone, according to maps city officials submitted. The legal complaints also cite an internal Exxon document from 1982. Its authors predicted that global temperatures will rise 3 degrees Celsius before the century ends.
The law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is helping the plaintiffs. So is Matt Pawa, a well-known environmental lawyer with a specialty in climate change cases.
He helped argue the landmark environmental case American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, which wound its way to the Supreme Court. Pawa also led the plaintiffs in a 2008 case, Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., in which an Alaskan village made arguments against Exxon similar to those that Oakland and San Francisco are making now.
Reached by phone Tuesday night, Pawa declined to comment.
Industry groups have criticized Pawa for consulting with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), who is investigating Exxon for allegedly deceiving investors and the public about the dangers of climate change (E&E News PM, Oct. 13, 2016).
David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian advocacy group that supports taxing carbon, said he expects the cases to proceed faster than those submitted in July by other California municipalities.
Those suits are more cumbersome, he said, since they name more defendants and make more claims.
“This is a much more streamlined complaint than the unwieldy monsters that were filed back in July,” Bookbinder said.
He described Pawa, and his knowledge about the oil industry and its research on climate change, as an asset.
“He knows the factual background in terms of what do the companies know, when did they know it, et cetera,” Bookbinder said.
A peer-reviewed study published this month found 90 companies are responsible for more than half the global increase in carbon dioxide levels and nearly half the climb in global temperatures (Climatewire, Sept. 7).
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.