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California Communities Sue Fossil Fuel Companies, Demanding State Court Hold Them Accountable for Climate Crisis

"It's about getting them to pay for the damages they knowingly created."

A view of a Chevron refinery on March 3, 2015 in Richmond, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Eight local governments in California on Wednesday called on fossil fuel companies to take responsibility for polluting their communities and contributing to the climate crisis—and the effects the resulting extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and heatwaves have already had, following a key federal hearing regarding their lawsuits against the companies.

"It has been two years or more since our communities first filed these cases to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the climate change related damages they knowingly caused and the high costs our taxpayers are already incurring as a result," the governments said in a statement after their oral arguments were heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena, California. "It is time for the defendants to be held accountable for their decades-long campaign of public deception."

The appeals court heard cases brought by two coalitions of local governments, which want their cases heard by a state court, which they believe will be more favorable to them than a federal court.

One case, filed by San Francisco and Oakland, was dismissed by a federal judge in 2018. The cities appealed and on Wednesday argued in favor of moving the case to a state court.

"The monetary cost of recovering and protecting our communities, businesses, and infrastructure from past and future climate devastation will be astronomical, not to mention the toll these disasters take on our lives and livelihoods. This burden must not fall on local governments and taxpayers."
—Janet Cox, 350 Silicon Valley
A federal judge has already ruled that the state should hear the other case, filed by the cities of Santa Cruz, Richmond, and Imperial Beach and the counties of San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Marin. The appeals court heard the case Wednesday following the fossil fuel companies' appeal of that decision.

The governments argue the companies, including Chevron, Exxon, British Petroleum, Shell, and ConocoPhillips, have contributed to the climate crisis and are liable for damages caused to their cities by rising sea levels, flooding, and fires.

The companies, argued Michael Rubin, a lawyer representing Oakland and San Francisco on Wednesday, "engaged in a large-scale, sophisticated advertising and communications campaign to promote the use of their products in massive levels, which the defendants claimed were safe and environmentally responsible, although the defendants have known according to the allegations of the complaint since the early 70s that global warming threatens severe and even catastrophic harms to coastal cities."

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"They embarked on this campaign by undermining or discrediting the scientific evidence, withholding information they had about global warming, and basically trying to persuade the community to use their fossil fuels rather than sources of renewable energy," he added.

Serge Dedina, the mayor of Imperial Beach, told the Los Angeles Times that the companies are more than able to pay for the damage caused by this decades-long campaign considering his city's entire yearly budget of $19 million is equal to the annual compensation of Exxon's CEO, Darren Woods.

"It's about getting them to pay for the damages they knowingly created," Dedina told the Times Wednesday.

The climate action group 350.org expressed support for the lawsuits.

"The monetary cost of recovering and protecting our communities, businesses, and infrastructure from past and future climate devastation will be astronomical, not to mention the toll these disasters take on our lives and livelihoods," said Janet Cox of 350 Silicon Valley and Fossil Free California. "This burden must not fall on local governments and taxpayers. Who can afford it? Who should pay? Oil and gas companies profiting from causing unraveling climate chaos."

Supporters of the cities believe if the federal court rules that a state court should hear the cases, it could open the door for similar suits against the fossil fuel industry.

"If the cases can move forward in state court, the courts are likely to take the plaintiffs' claims seriously, and this may affect prospects for cases in other states as well," Sean Hecht of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law told the Times.

A ruling on the cases is expected by the end of the year.

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