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Communities sue fossil-fuel companies over climate change
Several coastal municipalities in California on Monday filed lawsuits against more than three dozen oil and coal corporations for what they said are billions of dollars in property damage costs associated with climate change.
The city of Imperial Beach and Marin and San Mateo counties are going up against many of the world’s largest fossil-fuel companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell.
These conglomerates’ leading industry groups — the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Oil & Gas Association, both based in Washington, D.C. — could not be reached for comment Monday.
The plaintiffs filed their nearly matching lawsuits in their local Superior Court systems. They allege that greenhouse-gas emissions caused by the dozens of companies are contributing to warming of the planet and melting of glaciers, which results in sea-level rise that worsens coastal flooding. They forecast significantly greater expenses to deal with beach erosion, property loss and the need to retool infrastructure such as wastewater and runoff systems.
Who knew, and when: The plaintiffs also allege that company officials knew, or should have known, about the climate impacts of their activities. They argue that in certain cases, industry scientists conducted their own research decades ago and found links between carbon emissions and climate change.
“They knew about sea-level rise. They knew the damage it would cause, and they should be held accountable,” said Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina.
The legal strategy is pinned on describing these companies as having caused a public nuisance, similar to tactics used against the tobacco industry.
In the past, oil industry officials have dismissed the idea that climate-change litigation is similar to lawsuits brought against cigarette companies. They argue that unlike tobacco use, there’s no direct connection between an energy company and global warming’s effects on individual people, neighborhoods or regions.
“I don’t think this is crazy, but it’s a long shot,” said Greg Keating, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, referring to the new litigation. “The hard thing is these defendants don’t just directly emit the fossil fuel into the atmosphere. They do things like sell gasoline to people who drive automobiles and put emissions into the air that way.”
Flooding damage: The lawsuits seek payment for ongoing and future flooding damage caused by storms, as well as impacts from more regular occurrences such as king tides. Imperial Beach and the two counties said these flooding events are increasingly amplified by climate change and will dramatically drive down property values and could even put lives at risk. The suits also ask for punitive damages.
Efforts to extract money from fossil-fuel companies for the impacts of climate change haven’t had much success.
Notably, the Alaskan village of Kivalina has been hit with violent storms associated with melting sea ice. In 2008, it unsuccessfully sued oil and coal companies to pay for relocation costs.
A number of earlier lawsuits against oil and gas companies failed because they focused on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, said Ann Carlson, faculty director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law.
“Here, this is a more conventional lawsuit” in the sense of asking for damages, she said. “The lawyers have done a very good job. The courts will have to take this seriously.”
The case: The law firm of Sher Edling, which specializes in environmental cases, is working with Imperial Beach and Marin and San Mateo counties. Its lawyers on Monday said advances in climate science and recent revelations from news outlets’ investigative projects have bolstered their odds. Specifically, they pointed to a series of stories by the nonprofit journalism group Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times that found ExxonMobil and other industry players conducted internal research going back to the 1980s that found ties between fossil fuels and climate change.
Since then, the state attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts have been investigating whether ExxonMobil improperly concealed this knowledge. The company has sued to block those inquiries, and that case is being heard in federal court.
Last year, ExxonMobil shareholders filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the company misled them on the financial risks associated with climate change.
“There have been cases in the past that sought compensation for climate-change-related impacts, but they didn’t have the science that we have today and they didn’t have the (industry) documents that we have today,” said Victor Sher, an attorney with Sher Edling.
Officials in Marin County estimated that under extreme conditions, thousands of homes and business valued at more than $16 billion could be regularly inundated with ocean waters by the end of the century.
Similarly, San Mateo County concluded that under similar circumstances, it could stand to lose more than $24 billion of assets at risk.
While Imperial Beach isn’t projected to suffer as much financial damage, its officials said the economically challenged beach town lacks the resources to adapt the worst impacts of sea-level rise.
Scientific predictions for sea-level rise by 2100 vary widely, from less than a foot to as much as six feet if emissions continue unabated.