Several California communities have recently brought suits as part of a larger political campaign to attack the oil and gas industry, but a profile of one of the lawyers leading the cases published by VICE this morning leaves no question about the motive of these cases. The plaintiffs aren’t seeking to protect themselves from climate change; they’re trying to “bring down the fossil fuel companies.”
VICE’s article profiles Steve Berman of the notorious anti-corporate law firm Hagens Berman. VICE ticks off Berman’s accomplishments:
He forced Jack-in-the-Box to pay $12 million for causing an E. coli outbreak that killed four children. He won a $215 million settlement against Enron for defrauding investors and wiping out employee retirement accounts. He represented auto dealers in a $1.6 billion lawsuit against Volkswagen for cheating on diesel emissions.
Berman is best known, though, for suing big tobacco in the 1990s. At the end of that fight, he helped negotiate a $206 billion settlement from cigarette makers like Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and Brown & Williamson for causing cancer. It remains the largest legal settlement of its kind in history.
Somehow VICE forgot to mention the time Hagens Berman had to pay $10.8 million to its own clients after it was judged that they failed to act in their clients’ best interest. The firm was also fined for “bad faith advocacy” after a U.S. District judge ruled that Hagens Berman had moved forward with several cases even though they knew the cases were “baseless.” The judge said that one of Hagens Berman’s allegations “gives new meaning to ‘frivolous.’”
Turning to his lawsuits against the oil and gas industry, VICE continues:
The stakes are even higher in his big oil lawsuit. Berman is not just trying to get oil companies to pay for seawalls in the Bay Area. In a broader sense he’s attempting to hold them responsible for endangering all human life on earth. “This is different in kind from anything else,” Timothy Crosland, the director of a UK-based climate law group called Plan B, told me. “Once you get started, you get one case that goes through, this is an avalanche. It’s got the potential really to bring down the fossil fuel companies.” (emphasis added)
That’s what this is and always has been about. Santa Cruz and San Francisco may be legitimately concerned about the effects of climate change on their communities, but their concern is being co-opted by money-hungry lawyers and environmental activists seeking to eliminate fossil fuel companies.
Don’t believe that Berman’s only in this for the money? Per VICE:
As our interview came to a close I asked Berman to describe the best-case scenario for all this. “Imagine if I could get ten or 15 cities to all sue and put the same pressure on the oil companies that we did with tobacco companies and create some kind of massive settlement,” he said. He acted as if it was the first time he’d thought of the idea. But I got the feeling it wasn’t. (emphasis added)
Berman’s already succeeded in securing the largest settlement ever and the only way he can outdo himself is to set his sights on the industry that literally powers the world.
But even if Berman doesn’t get to a settlement, if he can just convince a judge to hear his case, he may get everything he thinks he needs:
As far as Berman is concerned the story isn’t over. On climate change he thinks it’s just getting started. If a judge decides his case can be heard—a big if, considering that no lawsuit against big oil has made it to that stage—then Berman can call on Exxon, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron to make internal reports and research into climate change available. “[I’m] dying to get to those documents,” he said. “I’m convinced they’re going to be smoking hot.” (emphasis added)
This dogged pursuit of industry documents tracks with a memo Berman’s new partner, #ExxonKnew activist Matt Pawa, sent to billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. Pawa wrote a memo in 2015 pitching Steyer on the idea of convincing Californian communities to sue the oil and gas industry over climate change. The memo suggests that “simply proceeding to the discovery phase of a global warming case would be significant.” Pawa’s firm was acquired by Hagens Berman earlier this year “in an effort to pursue climate change litigation against companies,” and Pawa is now leading the San Francisco and Oakland cases.
There is hope that these cases will not progress that far. In her 2009 decision in a related case, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong wrote, “There is no realistic possibility of tracing any particular alleged effect of global warming to any particular emissions by an specific person, entity, group at any particular point in time.”
“The litigants misunderstand nuisance law,” attorney Scott Segal told the Washington Post earlier this year. “In the case of global climate change, a molecule of carbon is literally around the world in seven days. The requisite causation needed for nuisance suits is missing and unprovable.”
Having failed to pass a national climate policy out of Congress and after watching President Trump dismantle President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, these activists are completely sidelining democracy and trying to push their agenda through the courts. If successful, a handful of extremists will have imposed their radical anti-fossil fuel policy on the entire country, which has repeatedly rejected their efforts.