Local Governments Are Suing Oil Companies for Ruining the Planet

July 19th 2017

One California city and two of the state's counties are suing fossil fuel giants over their contributions to rising sea levels and other symptoms of climate change that are impacting coastal communities.

Imperial Beach, a city 15 minutes from the Mexico-U.S. border, and the northern counties of Marin and San Mateo claim that coal, oil, and gas companies were aware of their climate impact for almost 50 years, but failed to disclose these risks to the public.

“Instead of working to reduce the use and combustion of fossil fuel products, lower the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, minimize the damage associated with continued high use and combustion of such products, and ease the transition to a lower carbon economy,” the legal complaint reads. “Defendants concealed the dangers, sought to undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation, and engaged in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products at ever greater volumes.”

The complaint, filed in California Superior Court, accuses companies such as Shell and Exxon of responsibility for roughly 20 percent of the world's methane and carbon dioxide pollution over the last five decades. This greenhouse gas pollution, the lawsuit alleges, correlates with some of the most harmful coastal signs of climate change, including ocean acidification, warming temperatures, and rising sea levels.

“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,” said Don Horsley, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, in a press release.

“The damage they’ve caused and continue to cause is unacceptable. But the fact that they’d prioritize their bottom line over the health and security of the public—including children—in the face of hard science is unconscionable.”

"The Damage they've caused and continue to cause is unacceptable. But the fact that they'd prioritize their bottom line over the health and security of the public-including children-in the face of hard science is unconscionable."This isn’t the first time fossil fuel companies have been served for their undeniable connection to climate change; New York and Massachusetts are already investigating ExxonMobil over its greenhouse gas emissions. But the California suit is the first to rely on so-called “design defect” and “failure to warn” claims, two types of legal accusations based on the analysis of activity over a period of time, to connect fossil fuel giants to decades of environmental harm.

While these sorts of claims are complex to present, when accepted by a court they can achieve serious results.

In 2013, a woman who lost her spouse to smoking-related illnesses successfully won a suit against the American Tobacco Company on the grounds that the company failed to inform her husband—who died 45 years earlier—of the health risks posed by smoking. A similar case in 2002 resulted in a requested $28 billion payout from cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris.

However, the climate claims face a tough legal road ahead. While it’s easy enough to prove that fossil fuels pollute, it’s more difficult to show that the exact emissions created by the 37 accused companies are directly responsible for the climate degradation affecting the community's shorelines. Climate change is, after all, a global problem, with contributors all over the planet.

But the leaders of the California municipalities are hoping for the best.

“As a low-income coastal community, we have no capacity to pay for the adaptation measures needed to protect ourselves from these (climate) impacts,” Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said in a press release. “It is unfair to force citizens, business owners and taxpayers to fend for ourselves when the source of the problem is so clear. It is more critical than ever that we hold those corporate polluters accountable.”

Chevron and ExxonMobil have both declined to comment on the lawsuit, according to the Scientific American.

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