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Fighting Back against Big Oil

Dusty Sklar
September 30, 2017

by Dusty Sklar

It's common knowledge that big oil is at least in part responsible for the disasters caused by climate change, so it's fair that they should shoulder some of the burden of the costs it causes. Now, two coastal cities in California, San Francisco and Oakland, have filed lawsuits against ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Conoco Phillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, demanding that they pay for sea walls and other protections against rising sea levels. It's an attempt to shift the costs of climate change from the public to fossil fuel companies.

The San Francisco lawsuit alleges that leading oil companies have for decades ignored scientists who "warned them in stark terms that fossil fuel usage would cause global warming that poses catastrophic harm." Even worse: "The global warming-induced sea level from past fossil fuel usage is an irreversible condition on any relevant time scale. It will last hundreds or even thousands of years."

San Francisco is surrounded by water on three sides. At risk is at least $10 billion of public property and $39 billion of private property. "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 said when he announced the lawsuits.

Oakland warns that rising sea levels will "disproportionately impact and endanger" its airport, as well as low-income people and minorities.

Matters have not been helped at all by the devastating impact of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria on parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean in recent weeks. The consensus among scientists is that climate change, causing rising sea levels and warming oceans, made these hurricanes more intense than they've ever been.

These suits come on the heels of three public nuisance suits which were filed earlier this year by Marin and San Mateo counties, as well as by Imperial Beach, a city in San Diego county. Reuters observed that this development is part of "a growing body of local action against oil companies over climate change. Prosecutors for New York and Massachusetts are investigating Exxon, for example, over the possibility that it misled investors in public statements on the risks of climate change." According to New York's top prosecutor, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, they were not forthright about how they accounted for climate change risks. He claimed to have evidence of "potential materially false and misleading statements by Exxon that could have led investigators to think the oil giant company properly assessed the risks when it actually ignored a formula to estimate the impact of future environmental regulations on new deals."

Schneiderman's investigation revealed that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, at that time the chief executive of Exxon, used a separate email address along with an alias, "Wayne Tracker," to mull over matters related to climate change.

In court papers, the suits argue that the companies have put people and public property at risk and urge them, therefore, to bear the cost of climate change adaptation programs. That would entail the building of sea walls and raising low-lying buildings which are vulnerable to rising tides.

A recent peer-reviewed Harvard study found that for nearly forty years Exxon has raised doubt about the dangers of climate change, even though their own scientists admitted the growing threat. Exxon claimed the study is "inaccurate and preposterous . . . paid for, written and published by activists." These sorts of "public nuisance" cases will probably become more prevalent in the future.

The response of the oil companies so far: Exxon, BP and Conoco Phillips proferred no comments. Chevron, with headquarters in San Ramon, California, said it "welcomes serious attempts to address the issue of climate change, but these suits do not do that." Shell's view was that it has "long recognized the climate challenge," but felt that such a complex issue should be dealt with through policy and cultural change, "not by the courts."

As for the American Petroleum Industry, a lobbying organization, they hold that the natural gas and oil industry "will continue to play a leading role in driving down U.S. greenhouse gas and other emissions."

The oil companies are being compared to tobacco companies. Like them, the defendants have "sponsored public relations campaigns, either directly or through the American Petroleum Institute or other groups, to deny and discourage the mainstream scientific consensus on global warming," to downplay its risks, and even to attack the integrity of leading climate scientists, the San Francisco suit declares.

If the history of Big Tobacco is any guide, these lawsuits will not be easy to win. The best that we can hope for is that they will force Big Oil to work harder to deal with the global challenge they help to create.