Could oil firms be forced to pay for climate change in California?

Porter Ranch gas leakThe Bay Area city of Richmond recently made an unlikely move that got the attention of its largest employer and taxpayer, Chevron.

It followed other municipalities and counties across California that have filed lawsuits against oil companies, alleging that the energy giants knowingly contributed to climate change and should begin paying for it. Literally.

Employing the legal strategy that brought states major payouts from tobacco companies decades ago, the plaintiffs are demanding that oil interests begin writing checks to protect Californians against rising seas, crippling drought and harmful air.

The legal viability of the lawsuits is unclear; the cases are in early stages. But if any succeed, the implications are profound: The state is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up coastlines, protect infrastructure and retrofit roads and bridges in response to rising seas. And if companies are persuaded to drill and refine less oil, California has a much better chance of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions on the schedule it has set.

Besides Richmond, plaintiffs include the cities of Imperial Beach, Oakland, Santa Cruz and San Francisco and the counties of Marin, San Mateo and Santa Cruz. The Los Angeles City Council is considering its own suit.

 The state has not joined in, something environmental groups say is a failure of leadership.

“Accountability is critical,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The state of California can and should file a case seeking money damages and also an injunction against ongoing activities.”

The California Department of Justice has sued the Trump administration two dozen times over policies that include several related to the environment. Asked whether the state would join the cities and counties or consider filing its own suit against the oil companies, the Justice Department declined to comment about potential future action.

The city-county suits began six months ago when Imperial Beach, in southern San Diego County, sued a handful of oil companies. Richmond, surrounded on three sides by water and imperiled by rising seas, joined the fight Jan. 22. Its city council voted unanimously to sue 29 oil producers, even if it meant taking on Chevron, whose tax payments—$45 million in 2016—account for 25 percent of the city’s general fund.

“They are a pretty important corporate citizen,” said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt.

However, “we are a waterfront city—Richmond has 32 miles of shoreline on the Bay. Part of our city is vulnerable to sea-level rise: our transportation systems, neighborhoods and commercial areas and thousands of acres of waterfront park.”

Among those vulnerable venues is Chevron’s refinery, which sits at the edge of San Francisco Bay. Completed in 1902, this refinery, the state’s largest, was immediately dubbed “the colossus.” The facility today employs more than 3,400 people.

Leah Casey, the spokeswoman for Chevron’s Richmond refinery, said in a statement that lawsuits like the local ones “will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement.”

Butt said the city sued “out of frustration, because I know that these fossil fuel companies are aware of the long-term costs and damage of the widespread consumption of fossil fuel.” He said Richmond was already planning for the sea’s rise but had not yet calculated mitigation costs.

The suits are filed in state court under California’s public-nuisance law, which allows legal actions against activities that are “injurious to health.”

New York City filed a similar claim against five of the world’s largest oil companies in federal court, asking that the cost of mitigating damage done by the companies as a result of their contribution to climate change be charged to them.

The legal challenges also assert that the oil industry has known for decades that burning fossil fuels accelerates climate change. The Richmond complaint states, “The industry has known for decades that business-as-usual combustion of their products could be ‘severe’ or even ‘catastrophic.’

“Companies were so certain of the threat that some even took steps to protect their own assets from rising seas and more extreme storms,” the complaint goes on, “and they developed new technologies to profit from drilling in a soon-to-be-ice-free Arctic. Yet instead of taking steps to reduce the threat to others, the industry actually increased production while spending billions on public relations, lobbying, and campaign contributions to hide the truth.”

The slow unraveling of the decades-long industry cover-up of the medical harm from cigarettes turned the tide in the tobacco cases, according to Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

Carlson, who is advising some of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said that courts will take into account the oil-industry-funded campaign to discredit climate science.

“That matters in California,” she said. “If you can show evidence that a defendant engaged in a campaign to obfuscate, it’s more than just a nice detail. Evidence helps.”

With much at stake, oil companies are pushing back hard. ExxonMobil has responded with a demand to depose lawyers representing the California cities and counties.

The company says it is a victim of a conspiracy and cities and counties are being disingenuous: When they issue municipal bonds, they portray risk from climate change as unpredictable, not the fault of oil firms, as the lawsuits claim.

The companies have also filed motions to move the cases to federal courts, where they believe there are precedents more favorable to them.

The number of the legal claims intended to monetize the consequences of a warming planet is growing. Carlson said greater scientific certainty about attributing climate change impacts to specific industries and companies has created a legal opening.

“The courts were uncomfortable that they couldn’t trace the harm,” she said.

California is the epicenter of so-called climate-attribution science, said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“There’s really a quite robust ability to characterize the extent to which climate change impacts have worsened,” he said.

Further, by collating data taken from oil companies’ annual accounting and national and international energy agencies’ reports, “one can then connect the dots and assign a cost. That tees up the question, ‘Who is responsible and who should pay?’ ” Frumhoff said.

“This is where the science is taking us, with increasing specificity and confidence.”

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

Comments

  1. Al Gore was wrong, when he stated the sea coasts would be under water in a decade. Maybe an inch in that time period and reviewing historical patterns it is not man made global warming. Yet the Democrats continue to quake away.

    The sky is not following. Get over it.

  2. My prayer is that Chevron makes the announcement that since Richmond, San Francisco and other liberal cities doesn’t want them there, that Chevron will immediately shut down refinery operations in order to move them to another State and stop supplying any fuel or grease to these named cities.

  3. I have a court-ready demo experiment that shows clearly CO2 does not heat the atmosphere in “CO2 Is Innocent” at https://sciencefrauds.blogspot.com Free and clip copyable so you can do the demo for less than $7 and prove it for yourself.

    Google “Two Minute Conservative” for more.

  4. The Captive says

    “The courts were uncomfortable that they couldn’t trace the harm,” she said. So they can’t trace the harm —what harm? They are gearing up to TAX (THAT’S WHAT CA is all about tax ,tax!) the deep pockets of natural fuels—then what –That’s a good idea to pull up stakes and go to where they WANT REFINERY OPERATIONS. Then it will be bad for all of us left here –but under the LEFT -what do you get? I’ll tell you the left are LIARS, CHEATERS, NAME CALLERS AND IMMATURE TO A GREAT EXTENT. jerry brown is an example of a LEFT SCAMMER.

  5. vistacharlie says

    Why wait? Move refineries out of richmond. Perhaps arizona or texas. As for richmond itself if they are seriously concerned about sea levels rising and then forcing inland richmond underwater then they sould evacuate. basically if doing business within the state is going to lead to lawsuits then the businesses should remove themselves from the state. this should also mean sales of petroleum products like refined gasoline, propane, natural gas, etc. The reason why global warming has it’s name is because it is “global” if it is factual. So the impact from this on polluters from china, etc. is negligible. perhaps if china sells refined petroleum products to CA then they can try suing them and see what happens. in the meantime maybe richmond residents can figure out how to put food in their mouth.

  6. This reminds me of people who build houses near an airport and then complain of noise. When I was young this refinery was located in the
    boondocks.

  7. Corporations never pay for anything. They simply pass any increase on to consumers by raising prices. The only ones harmed will be the unfortunates that live in this insane left wing state.

  8. If one has a right to be stupid one has a right to angry. The attorneys/advisors should donate their fees to the homeless and get rid of anything made from petroleum products. The city, is they get money should be prevented from diverting it to retirements

  9. Either business doors close or consumers will foot the bill…not hard to figure out.

  10. retiredxlr8r says

    Pathetic! Simply disgusting the greed of municipalities, counties, and this state. It’s all about the money because they use any revenue available to purchase votes for the next election.
    Blatant, in your face corruption and they don’t seem to care.
    Our state legislature, excuse the expression, is its own S**thole! A cesspool of incompetent legislatures led by our very own tyrant! Oh, excuse me again, make that despot!
    The can fix the problem by not funding useless projects like the high speed rail to no where, and the twin tunnel waste of money, free education and healthcare for illegals, monthly paychecks to homeless for doing absolutely nothing. Lets not forget, if they decertified all public employee unions that could save a ton of money on everything from on the job efficiency to retirement pension adjustment to a level where it should be for investments.
    Don’t hold out much hope for California, she’s lost!

  11. If I were Chevron , I’d start downsizing and or moving out of the Fascist State of California.

  12. And the cost of living goes up and job opportunities go down…
    Wake up, yoga pants wearing Californians…you’re killing your own livelihoods…

  13. David Stubbs says

    Oil companies should immediately quit selling any and all products made with crude oil in the Peoples Republic of California. Let these idiots try to run their electric cars and heat and cool their homes and businesses with wind and solar power and they will be begging to have the oil flow cut back on within a week.

  14. Gregory Brittain says

    –Leah Casey, the spokeswoman for Chevron’s Richmond refinery, said in a statement that lawsuits like the local ones “will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement.”

    This is the basic strategic error of the oil companies and business in general, accepting the validity of the global warming hoax. Once they accept the premise, they, all consumers of energy, and all lovers of freedom inevitably lose. It’s just a question of how much and when.

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