Earlier this week New York City mayor Bill de Blasio stood side-by-side with several leading anti-fossil fuel activists, whom he called “my brother and sister activists,” and announced he would sue five oil and gas companies for causing Hurricane Sandy.

No, this is not The Onion – but it’s close.

The city complains that the oil and gas companies “produced, marketed, and sold massive quantities of fossil fuels—primarily oil and natural gas—despite knowing that the combustion and use of fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases.” NYC blames the companies for causing Hurricane Sandy because of their contribution to climate change. “The City of New York is taking on these five giants because they are the central actors, they are the first ones responsible for this crisis, and they should not get away with it anymore,” Mayor de Blasio said at his press conference.

It’s unlikely that Hizzoner’s lawsuit will do anything to address climate change; in fact, it’s arguably not even supposed to. Wednesday’s announcement was all about rewarding climate activists and their wealthy funders for the years they’ve spent pressuring public officials to punish energy companies and to declare “war on the fossil fuel industry.”

The Associated Press reported that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund was thrilled with the mayor’s announcement, and why shouldn’t they be? They’ve bankrolled every step of the divestment and #ExxonKnew campaigns, and they just notched another series of headlines to justify their investment. Though it’s more of promise of a return, because the mayor only pledged to start the process at looking at divestment, and the lawsuit will take years to wend its way through the courts when, if history is any judge, it will ultimately fail.

Failed Legal Theory

NYC’s lawsuit relies on the legal theories of “public nuisance” and “private nuisance.” Public nuisance is a threat to the community, such as a drug den or a pile of hazardous waste. Private nuisance is an “unreasonable interference” with someone’s property. New York City has tried this argument before and had those arguments soundly rejected.

In American Electric Power v. Connecticut, several states and New York City sued energy companies, claiming that their contributions to climate change were a public nuisance. The case was sent all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the public nuisance argument was unanimously rejected in an 8-0 decision. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency is the proper authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, not the courts.

A federal appeals court threw out a related case, Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, the following year. NYC’s persistence (using the same lawyer – Matt Pawa – no less!), confirms that their case is focused solely on earning headlines and scoring political points, not addressing climate change.

Joining de Blasio on stage were 350.org’s Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, as well as Greenpeace’s Naomi Ages. McKibben and Ages both attended a secret closed-door meeting at the Rockefeller Family Fund’s offices in January of 2016 where they plotted:

  • “To establish in public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution that has pushed humanity (and all creation) toward climate chaos and grave harm”
  • “To delegitimize them as a political actor”
  • “To force officials to disassociate themselves from Exxon”
  • “To drive divestment from Exxon”

NYC’s lawsuit lists Matt Pawa and Steve Berman as “of counsel” to the city – the same lawyers representing San Francisco and Oakland in their lawsuits against energy companies. Matt Pawa also represented the plaintiffs that lost their case in both American Electric Power v. Connecticut and Kivalina v. ExxonMobil. In an interview with VICE, Berman left no doubt about what the real goal of these lawsuits is:

“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)

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Despite his finger wagging this week, Mayor de Blasio has come under fire from all sides for his own carbon-heavy lifestyle. The New York Observer labeled him an “Imperial Hypocrite” for insisting that he be driven daily by a two SUV caravan to a particular YMCA located 12 miles from his home, even though there are at least 13 other YMCAs located closer to his mansion, according to a Google Maps search. New York City is also home to the most robust public transportation network in the country and is America’s fourth most bike-friendly city.

“Everyone in their own life has to change their own habits to start protecting the earth,” de Blasio said on WNYC last year. De Blasio, though, believes he is exempt from his own directives. “I’m going to keep going to the gym, I’m proud to say we have a hybrid and it’s a good car, it’s very fuel efficient.” But that hybrid – a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV – gets below average fuel economy. The New York Post reports:

“The mayor is ferried to the Y by two SUVs — a regular GMC Yukon XL, which burns 16 mpg in the city, and a Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, which is only slightly more fuel efficient at 20 mpg.

De Blasio also suggested the city would start cracking down on idling cars — even though his own fleet has been caught waiting with their engines on for up to an hour outside the gym.

“‘Idling is a huge problem, and blocking the box is huge problem,’ the mayor said. ‘I will have more to say on that in the coming weeks.’” (emphasis added)

The day after de Blasio announced his climate lawsuit, columnist Jim Dwyer eviscerated the mayor’s hypocrisy in a column in the New York Times:

“Purring in the mild winter day, a small armada of S.U.V.s was parked Thursday morning along 42nd Street outside the New York Public Library. Inside was Mayor Bill de Blasio, at an interfaith prayer breakfast that went on for quite a while.

“By divine right of mayoralty, or someone, 13 vehicles waited at the curb in a no-standing zone, among them four black S.U.V.s (three Chevy Suburbans and one Yukon XL) an ambulance, a huge E.M.S. vehicle and a police school safety van. The engines on those big boys were running while the mayor was inside, for about two hours…

“Whatever the merits of the suit, Mr. de Blasio — and his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg — are the very embodiment of a possible line of defense by the oil companies. Namely, that it wasn’t the oil companies that created the greenhouse gases, but society in general — companies and individuals who used oil to generate electricity, or for transportation.”

De Blasio has also been flying to Iowa recently to try to raise his national profile as a progressive politician, where he was protested by members of NYC’s police union for not living up to his own declarations (we’re noticing a trend here). It’s safe to bet that all of these voluntary flights were powered by fuel produced by the very companies he’s now blaming for climate change.

Announcement Criticized by Left and Right

Sensing that de Blasio’s announcements were nothing more than a political stunt without substance and a shameless attempt at extracting wealth from the energy industry, environmentalists and climate skeptics alike slammed de Blasio on Twitter:

At a time when New Yorkers are facing higher energy costs than their neighbors due to the state’s anti-fossil fuel policies, Bill de Blasio has taken New York City further down a path that will harm consumers – not to mention police officers and other city employees whose pensions are suffering from similar politicization.