California Counties Are Suing the Oil Industry After a Record Fire Season

Photo: AP

Throughout California, local governments have been attempting to find some security against climate change in the courtroom. Most recently, the city and county of Santa Cruz filed separate lawsuits Wednesday against fossil fuel corporations.

They want California’s Superior Court to hold these companies—Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP America, just to name a few of the 29 listed—responsible for the “financial, environmental, and public health costs tied to global warming,” as the city government said in a press release.


This follows a trend among other California municipalities (like San Mateo County, Marin County, and the City of Imperial Beach) that filed similar lawsuits this year. They all want these companies to pay for how they intentionally ignored the ways they were exacerbating climate change by spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The cases allege industry knew this would lead to sea level rise, coastal flooding, and other “catastrophic” impacts, as the county complaint said, yet did nothing to halt or alter their practices. Instead, these corporations skewed public opinion on climate change, creating the climate denialism that has plagued the American consciousness.

Now, taxpayer dollars are supposed to cover the costs needed to both mitigate and deal with the result? No way, says the legal team behind these suits.


Victor Sher, a partner at Sher Edling LLP, the firm handling these cases across the state, told Earther in an email:

“These communities do not believe that their taxpayers should have to pay for the full cost of planning for and implementing measures to reduce the threats in the future, let alone for damage that is already occurring, when those costs are a direct result of greenhouse gas pollution that the oil, gas, and coal companies knew—for decades—would cause these consequences.”


What makes Santa Cruz’s lawsuits different, however, is the climate impacts they include: heat, drought, and wildfires. In the past, complaints have mentioned sea level rise. That’s easier to argue than, say, wildfires, said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

“These next cases on heat, drought and wildfire risk, the science on those is arguably a little more tricky than the science on sea level rise,” Burger told Earther.


That’s because climate change isn’t entirely to blame for the extreme wildfires the West is currently experiencing. Plaintiffs have to make a case for that and, then, go even further and link these events to the companies’ actions. “But I think it’s still plausible,” Burger went on.

Photo: AP

Sure, Burger can imagine a court dismissing these cases, but no solid precedents have been set to paint a scenario where these cases absolutely lose. The judicial system has seen similar cases in the past (like the Alaskan Native village of Kivalina in 2008 and the state of Connecticut in 2005), but none have ever reached the trial phase.

The trend is now gaining some steam in California, and Burger expects this to spread to other parts of the country, too—especially after they see what comes out of California. After all, these wildfires aren’t just threatening property; their smoke threatens human health, too. In California—and across the country, really—black people already experience higher asthma rates. A future with more smoke and burning will only worsen that.


Every time the courts decide on a case, teams can better tailor their arguments in the future. With climate change expected to cost the U.S. $5 trillion through 2100 on coastal property damage alone, cities and counties need to start figuring out where that money will come from. Soon.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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