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New York City sues Shell, ExxonMobil, and other oil majors over climate change

Each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally. Credit: NASA/GISS
January 10 2018

The New York City government is suing the world’s five largest publicly traded oil companies, seeking to hold them responsible for present and future damages to the city from climate change.

The suit, filed Tuesday against BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, claims the companies together produced 11 percent of all of global warming gases through the oil and gas products they have sold over the years. It also charges that the companies and the industry of which they are part have known for some time about the consequences but sought to obscure them.

In this litigation, the City seeks to shift the costs of protecting the City from climate change impacts back onto the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat,” says the lawsuit brought by New York corporation counsel Zachary Carter, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The legal strategy has been already embraced by several California cities and counties, but prior suits seeking to blame companies for their role in causing climate change have floundered.

It remains unclear whether a new wave of litigation — propelled by stronger climate science, reports about how much some companies knew about climate change decades ago, and somewhat divergent legal strategy — will succeed where those efforts failed.

Last year, California’s Marin County, San Mateo County and the City of Imperial Beach similarly sued a group of fossil fuel companies over damages related to climate change — citing a theory called “public nuisance,” which basically argues that companies are causing an injury to the localities under common law. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland and the city and county of Santa Cruz have also filed suit early this year.

“I think the significant development here is that this is the first of these cases in this last year that’s filed outside of California,” said Michael Burger, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. If more and more localities sue, “we might be able to see adequate pressure applied to these companies to inspire action on climate change,” he said.

So far, that has not been the response. ExxonMobil has instead responded strongly to the claims, seeking in Texas court to depose California state officials and others involved in bringing the cases for “potential claims of abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and violation of ExxonMobil’s civil rights.”

Climate change “is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers,” Curtis Smith, head of U.S. media relations for Shell, wrote by email, “not by the courts.”

BP and ConocoPhillips, two other defendants named in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Exxon responded to New York’s lawsuit on its blog, where the firm has also challenged investigative news reports from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that showed the company was an early pioneer in climate change science in the 1980s, which were cited in the suit.

“ExxonMobil welcomes any well-meaning and good faith attempt to address the risks of climate change,” Suzanne McCarron, Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs, wrote. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. Lawsuits of this kind — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.”

“This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall wrote by email. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement. Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory and economic priorities.”

Several prior cases challenging individual companies based on a public nuisance theory failed — including at the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2011 that climate action by the Environmental Protection Agency in effect removed the ability to use the courts as a remedy.

But the difference now, Burger said, is that the claims are being brought under state, rather than federal, common law — and that strategy remains to be tested.

New York charges in the suit that it is “spending billions of dollars” to protect its coastlines, its infrastructure, and its citizens from climate warming.

“To deal with what the future will inevitably bring, the City must build sea walls, levees, dunes, and other coastal armament, and elevate and harden a vast array of City-owned structures, properties, and parks along its coastline,” the suit details. “The costs of these largely unfunded projects run to many billions of dollars and far exceed the City’s resources.”

The suit does not specify precisely how much money it is asking for from the oil companies in what it calls “compensatory damages,” saying that should be established in the case.

At a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio focused on the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, calling it “a tragedy wrought by the actions of the fossil fuel companies.” He detailed the 44 people who died in New York as a result of Sandy, as well as the estimated $19 billion in damages it caused, saying “that is the face of climate change. That is what it means in human and real terms.”

De Blasio claimed fossil fuel companies were complicit in worsening climate change, because they knew of the problem decades ago but continued to sell a product to Americans that contributed to only more greenhouse gas emissions.

“The city of New York is taking on these five giants, because they are the central actors, they are the first ones responsible for this crisis, and they should not get away with it anymore,” he said. “We’re going after those who have profited. And what a horrible, disgusting way to profit — the way it puts so many people’s lives in danger,” he said. “It’s time that they are held accountable. It’s time that things change in the way we do business.”

In addition to the litigation, officials said they expect to divest up to $5 billion in investments from as many as 190 companies with fossil fuel ties, even as they promised to maintain their fiduciary duty to New York’s pensioners.

“We’re using this moment to send a message to the world,” said New York comptroller Scott Stringer. “We believe a green economy is a thriving economy.”

Bill McKibben, an author and co-founder of climate advocacy group 350.org, praised the city’s actions on Wednesday.

“I’ve been watching the climate fight for the last 30 years,” McKibben told reporters. “This is one of the handful of most important moments in that 30-year fight.”

But the oil and gas lobby said that by not investing in their industry, New York was doing city workers a disservice.

“Today Mayor De Blasio turned his back millions of first responders, police officers and public employees who depend on their pensions to provide for themselves and their families in retirement,” said Karen Moreau of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. oil and gas lobbying group.

“Government pension managers have a responsibility by law to seek the greatest return for their investors and pensions that invest in oil and natural gas companies have delivered a stronger return than other investments.”

Brady Dennis contributed to this story.

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