The City of Richmond, Calif., yesterday announced that it was adding its name to the list of California municipalities trying to extract monetary damages from the energy industry for global warming. But its announcement comes as the other California municipalities and New York City have come under fire for bringing frivolous lawsuits that will do nothing to help their communities, and may actually cost taxpayers money.
Richmond hired plaintiffs’ firm Sher Edling to represent it in court. The firm is also representing the City and County of Santa Cruz, Imperial Beach, Marin County, and San Mateo County, and Richmond’s lawsuit is largely identical to the others filed by the firm. The Richmond suit is particularly interesting because it targets Chevron, which happens to be the city’s largest employer, and provides gasoline for 20 percent of the cars on Northern California roads.
#ExxonKnew activists quickly pounced on the news – so quick that they were, oddly, the first to report the city’s decision. Hours before the first story hit, Daniel Melling – who is hosting an event Thursday entitled “Holding Fossil Fuel Companies Liable for Climate Change Harms in California,” along with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Bill McKibben – broke the news of Richmond’s filing before a press release was even available.
Breaking – Richmond, CA is 9th US city to sue fossil fuel companies for climate damages.
— Daniel Melling (@daniel_melling) January 22, 2018
Five minutes later, Bill McKibben tweeted about the lawsuit, having somehow obtained a copy of the lawsuit from Sher Edling’s website, despite no mention of Sher Edling in Melling’s tweet.
City of Richmond–home to huge Chevron refinery–files suit against the biggest oil companies for climate damage: sea level rise, extreme weather
“Defendants Did Not Disclose Known Harms.”https://t.co/pwn4Dq20Jo
— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) January 22, 2018
Six minutes after McKibben’s tweet, Geoffrey Supran managed to find Richmond’s just-released press release, summarize it, and tweet it out with a screenshot of the stamped filing. Supran is the understudy to Naomi Oreskes, who together published a misleading study that relied on Greenpeace data to smear ExxonMobil’s record on climate change.
City of Richmond, CA — surrounded by water on 3 sides & one of poorest Bay Area communities — becomes 9th community suing oil companies for knowingly contributing to climate damages. #ExxonKnew https://t.co/BnFDhpcIEv pic.twitter.com/K6EnNZ5Oa5
— Geoffrey Supran (@GeoffreySupran) January 22, 2018
All of this occurred before any legitimate reporter had broken the news, much less filed a story. This level of coordination gives credence to a federal judge’s concern that these legal efforts, including the investigations by the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general, are part of a larger political strategy. Both the AG investigations and these liability lawsuits stem from meetings in La Jolla, California and in New York City at the offices of the Rockefeller Family Fund, where activists brainstormed ways to use the “AGs” and “Torts” to “creat[e] scandal” and win “successful action” against the industry.
The activist website Climate Liability News nicely lays out the motive behind Richmond’s lawsuit:
“Richmond is one of the poorest communities in the Bay Area, giving it few resources to respond to climate impacts. According to the complaint, the city ‘has already spent significant funds to study, mitigate, and adapt to the effects of global warming.’
“Now the city is looking to shift the burden of these expenses from its taxpayers to the companies who produce and profit from fossil fuels, which have been shown by scientists to be the overwhelming driver of climate change.” (emphasis added)
Earlier this month, ExxonMobil filed a petition in Texas that raised questions about the language the California municipalities suing it used to describe the risks they faced from climate change in their lawsuits against the company. In their lawsuits, the communities claimed that the risks of climate change-related damages were imminent and posed a substantial threat. But in their bond prospectuses, they either didn’t disclose any risks from climate change or said that such damages were far off and impossible to predict.
In other words, they were trying to have it both ways. The public officials bringing these suits, who in many cases are the same ones selling the bonds, will have to decide whether they’d prefer to admit that they lied in their lawsuit or that they lied to their investors. If they choose the latter, the Securities and Exchange Commission could determine that they committed securities fraud and issue heavy fines, which those municipalities (and their taxpayers) would ultimately be responsible for.
At first glance, Richmond’s bond prospectuses appear to have a level of climate risk disclosure that roughly matches the claims made in their lawsuit. That said, it is still trying to shift the blame from their own activities and policies, which continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, to the businesses providing their community with energy and jobs.
Commentators from across the country have weighed in in recent weeks to criticize these lawsuits. As Katy Grimes wrote for California’s Flash Report:
“Taking oil companies to court, and blaming them for anticipated catastrophes is purely politically motivated. These seven cities are looking to blame someone else to get out of footing the bills for a real or imagined problem.” (emphasis added)
The New York Post editorial board criticized New York City Mayor de Blasio’s lawsuit:
“The suit specifically seeks to recoup the costs of building the city’s resiliency in areas most likely to flood when superstorms hit. Hmm: That’s going to be a hard sell when de Blasio is encouraging more residential development all along the city’s waterfront.
“Plus, why should the oil companies pay? They’re not actually burning the fuel — that’s the world’s utilities, motorists, etc.
“Without a practical non-fossil-fuel alternative, putting more carbon in the air is on all of us, not just the folks who provide the carbon. (Is the mayor willing to support nuclear plants, the only viable alternative?)”
And the Patriot Post even suggested a solution to California and New York’s complaints: