Oregon's Multnomah County sued fossil fuel companies and "their misinformation agents" in state court on June 22, 2023.

Oregon's Multnomah County sued fossil fuel companies and "their misinformation agents" in state court on June 22, 2023.

(Photo: Jessica Vega Pederson/Twitter)

Oregon County Sues Big Oil and 'Misinformation Agents' Over Deadly 2021 Heatwave

"The heat dome was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the defendants' decision to sell as many fossil fuel products over the last six decades as they could and to lie to the county, the public, and the scientific community."

Two years after what experts called the "world's most extreme heatwave in modern history" devastated the Pacific Northwest, Oregon's Multnomah County filed a lawsuit against several fossil fuel giants and "their misinformation agents" in state court.

"This lawsuit is about accountability and fairness, and I believe the people of Multnomah County deserve both. These businesses knew their products were unsafe and harmful, and they lied about it," said Jessica Vega Pederson, the county chair. "They have profited massively from their lies and left the rest of us to suffer the consequences and pay for the damages. We say enough is enough."

The complaint names fossil fuel companies including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Shell, as well as the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and two trade associations: the American Petroleum Institute (API) and Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA).

The 2021 extreme heat event was linked to hundreds of deaths in the region and scientists said at the time it would have been "virtually impossible without human-caused climate change," which is notably driven by ongoing fossil fuel extraction and use.

"The heat dome that cost so much life and loss was not a natural weather event," the complaint stresses. "It did not just happen because life can be cruel, nor can it be rationalized as simply a mystery of God's will. Rather, the heat dome was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the defendants' decision to sell as many fossil fuel products over the last six decades as they could and to lie to the county, the public, and the scientific community about the catastrophic harm that pollution from those products into the Earth's and the county's atmosphere would cause."

In Multnomah County, the heatwave killed at least 69 people, caused property damage, and took a financial toll on local resources. The suit—which accuses the defendants of fraud, negligence, and creating a public nuisance—seeks $50 million in actual damages, $1.5 billion in future damages, and an abatement fund, estimated at $50 billion, to "weatherproof" the county.

"There are no new laws or novel theories being asserted here. We contend that the defendants broke long-standing ones, and we will prove it to a jury," said attorney and law professor Jeffrey Simon.

Along with his firm, Simon Greenstone Panatier, the county is represented by Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost as well as Worthington & Caron.

"What is new about this case," explained attorney Roger Worthington, "is how the leadership of Multnomah County is utilizing irrefutable climate science to hold corporate polluters accountable for their role in causing a discreet and disastrous event, as well as recent wildfires."

According to Worthington:

We will show that fossil fuel-induced global warming is already costing Oregonians lives and treasure. We will show that the normal use of fossil fuel products over time has imposed massive external, unpriced, and untraded social, economic, and environmental costs on the county. We will show that they were aware of this price, and instead of fully informing the public, they deceived us. And we will ask a jury to decide if it is fair to hold the polluters accountable for these avoidable and rising costs.

We are confident that, once we show what the fossil fuel companies knew about global warming and when, and what they did to deny, delay, and deceive the public, the jury will not let the fossil fuel companies get away with their reckless misconduct.

As some local groups responded to the filing by urging Multnomah County to also "help us fight dirty, dangerous, and inequitable fossil fuel development" in the region, the new legal action was widely welcomed by climate campaigners.

Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said that with this suit, "Multnomah County has joined the growing ranks of local governments that are standing up to Big Oil and fighting to make these polluters pay for the catastrophic damage they knowingly caused and lied about for decades."

"While other communities are seeking to hold Big Oil accountable for the costs of hurricanes, rising seas, and wildfires," he highlighted, "Multnomah County is the first to demand that oil companies stand trial for fueling the devastating 2021 heat dome, which claimed lives and wreaked havoc across the Pacific Northwest."

"Communities should not be forced to pay the price for these catastrophic climate damages while the companies that caused the crisis perpetuate their lies and rake in record profits," Wiles added. "The people of Multnomah County deserve their day in court to hold Big Oil accountable."

Lawsuits that aim to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its planet-wrecking products and lies aren't the only climate-related cases currently moving through U.S. courts; Delta Merner at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on Thursday pointed to another legal battle—a historic climate trial in Montana, the result of 16 youth suing the state.

"Multnomah County residents are on the frontlines of devastating climate change impacts. Extreme heat and wildfires are taking a massive toll on the health, well-being, and livelihoods of community members and leaving scars that will last for generations," she said. "A growing body of attribution science is paving the way for real accountability, showing over and over that the fossil fuel industry bears a great deal of responsibility for the damage done. As the first constitutional climate lawsuit trial draws to a close in Montana, plaintiffs, advocates, and scientists are hopeful that our justice system will work effectively, informed by robust scientific evidence."

"Across the country and the world, climate litigation is helping communities resist the fossil fuel industry's attempts to further extend a dangerous, unjust, and destructive fossil fuel-dependent energy system and economy," added Merner, lead scientist at the UCS Science Hub for Climate Litigation. "While nothing can truly compensate for the lives lost, the homes destroyed, or the irreplaceable natural landscapes forever altered, legal avenues provide a glimmer of hope for justice. Climate litigation is a necessary mechanism to hold these corporations accountable for their callous disregard for the well-being of communities and the planet."

As DeSmognoted Thursday:

It is the first time that McKinsey & Company has been named as a defendant in a climate accountability lawsuit. It is also the first climate case to name the WSPA as a defendant; other climate cases filed by California communities have invoked the Big Oil trade association—which spent more than any other group lobbying in California last year—as a relevant nonparty.

McKinsey & Company has a sordid history of working with industries that have deliberately deceived the public about the harms of their products, from Big Tobacco to opioid manufacturers. The consulting firm has also served the fossil fuel industry.

Ben Franta, senior research fellow and head of the Climate Litigation Lab at the University of Oxford, suggested to DeSmog that firms that have done work for polluting industries may increasingly face such legal challenges.

"Fossil fuel majors have collaborated with ad agencies, public relations firms, and others over the decades to create misleading public communications campaigns," he said. "Much as the consulting firm McKinsey has faced liability in the context of opioid litigation, third parties beyond fossil fuel producers might conceivably face liability in the context of climate litigation."

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