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Faced With Rising Seas and Other Consequences of Climate Crisis, Low-Lying Delaware Sues 31 Fossil Fuel Companies

The state attorney general's move came just a day after Charleston, South Carolina became the first southern U.S. city to file a climate liability lawsuit.

Delaware

Delaware's attorney general on Thursday filed a climate liability lawsuit against 31 fossil fuel companies in state court. (Photo: Delaware.gov)

Joining the trend of city, county, and state governments trying to make polluters pay for their significant contributions to the climate crisis, Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings on Thursday announced a lawsuit against 31 fossil fuel companies on behalf of her state's residents and businesses.

"We are seeking accountability from some of the world's most powerful businesses to pay for the mess they've made."
—Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings

"Delawareans are already paying for the malfeasance of the world's biggest fossil fuel companies," Jennings said in a statement. "Exxon, Chevron, and other mega-corporations knew exactly what kind of sacrifices the world would make to support their profits, and they deceived the public for decades."

"Now we are staring down a crisis at our shores, and taxpayers are once again footing the bill for damage to our roads, our beaches, our environment, and our economy," she explained. "We are seeking accountability from some of the world's most powerful businesses to pay for the mess they've made."

Defendants named in the suit (pdf), filed in Delaware Superior Court, include BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxonmobil, and Royal Dutch Shell as well as the oil and gas industry trade association American Petroleum Institute (API). The complaint details each of their "misleading and deceptive greenwashing campaigns."

Defendants knew for decades that fossil fuel products drive global heating, "that climate change impacts could be catastrophic, and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would be irreversible," the complaint says. Despite that, they "engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats, to discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and to persistently create doubt in the minds of customers, consumers, regulators, the media, journalists, teachers, and the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel products."

On top of those efforts to "target and influence the public and consumers, including in Delaware," defendants "have promoted and profited from a massive increase in the extraction, production, and consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas, which has in turn caused an enormous, foreseeable, and avoidable increase in global greenhouse gas pollution," the complaint adds. That pollution has contributed to "a wide range of dire climate-related effects, including, but not limited to, global atmospheric and ocean warming, ocean acidification, melting polar ice caps and glaciers, more extreme and volatile weather, drought, and sea-level rise."

Delaware is especially threatened by sea-level rise, as the state with the lowest average elevation. The complaint claims more than 22,000 Delawareans are currently threatened by coastal flooding, which is expected to negatively impact the state's tourism and agriculture industries. The suit also raises concerns about how residents will be affected by future extreme weather events, noting that temperatures are rising over 20,000 people in the state are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat.

"Delaware and our residents are suffering from sea-level rise, increased temperatures, heavy precipitation, and flooding due to climate change, and that is adversely impacting our public health, environment and economy," Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said Thursday. "The science is clear that these climate impacts are directly attributable to the products produced by fossil fuel companies."

Over the past few years, at least 22 communities have pursued lawsuits that aim to make polluters pay, according to the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI). Delaware is the fourth state to file this type of suit, after Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. As CCI executive director Richard Wiles put it: "Delaware joins a growing wave of communities that rightly seek to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for lying about the climate change disasters they knew their products would cause."

"The climate crisis Big Oil caused is engulfing the nation, and it is costing communities billions of dollars. With more than 20 climate lawsuits filed against them, and three in just the last eight days, it is clear that Big Oil is facing its 'Big Tobacco moment,' and accountability is coming for them," added Wiles, whose group supports suits and policy changes to make polluters pay. "When the fossil fuel industry innocently claims they did nothing wrong, keep in mind why they are being sued: because they lie."

Delaware's lawsuit came just a day after Charleston, South Carolina took similar action—and, as the Climate Docket reported, became the first U.S. southern city to do so. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg addressed the consequences of the climate crisis his community is already facing and the decision to file suit against major fossil fuel companies during a Wednesday press conference at the Battery, a local landmark seawall and historic park.

"We've been measuring sea level here in the harbor of Charleston for over a hundred years. During that time, sea-level rise has risen over a foot. In the last 20 years, with the climate change that's occurred, and mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels, the rate of increase has quadrupled," Tecklenburg said. "That's why we're going through major expense here to elevate the Low Battery and eventually we'll have to protect the entire perimeter of the peninsula and other parts of our city."

The recent filings by Delaware, Charleston, and Hoboken, New Jersey have prompted calls for other local governments to follow their lead. California-based Democratic National Committee delegate RL Miller, who founded the advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote, targeted her state's attorney general, Xavier Becerra. As Common Dreams has reported this week, California is among the western states currently being ravaged by historic, climate change-fueled wildfires during the coronavirus pandemic.

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