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

Photo: AP
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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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
Photo: AP
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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.

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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.

Yessenia Funes is a senior staff writer with Earther. She loves all things environmental justice and dreams of writing children's books.

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DISCUSSION

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Dense non aqueous phase liquid

This could be a good thing. I like it. Companies would rather pay lawyers, public relations reps, third way environmental NGOs, and image consultants than pay into an environmental remediation (or protection) trust to compensate those impacted by the use of their product. This has become most obvious when the superfund tax on chemicals at points of value addition got eliminated.

Superfund trust was established to pay for all those messes left behind during the gogo era of “better living through chemistry.” Superfund was basically a penance for sins of the past. Other environmental acts like the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, etc were setup to control ongoing pollution entering the commons (i.e. the air, land and water we all share).

The Superfund Trust Fund sits at $0.00 today. Any EPA funding of cleanup that finance and industry skipped out is now being paid for by the general fund, i.e. operating fund and grants for new water treatment facilities.

Also, apparently, Pruitt is looking to end cleanup as quickly as possible by fucking with cleanup goals, reportedly. That’s fucked up. That’s really fucked up, if not fake news.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation is essentially pollution control (keeping it clean) and environmental remediation (cleaning it up to the most feasible level and dealing with what’s left).

So for a proximity specific simile between Superfund and wildfires spurred by heat activity, let’s look at California north of Los Angeles.

The bigass freaking nasty superfund site called Casmalia Resources located near Santa Maria, California (north of Santa Barbara) was a chemical waste disposal facility, i.e. a liquid waste dump, where the shit impacted the surrounding area. I see this as a perfect analogy to dumping shit in the atmosphere and impacting the climate. Pollution is pollution.

There should be a tax on production to pay for cleanup be it land, water, air or reversing the ever accumulating heat throughout the planet. A trust should be set aside to help communities recover. And this time keep lawyers away from draining the trust like superfund.

I’m not saying a revenue neutral carbon tax or cap and trade bullshit. I’m saying a tax on raw materials and products from industry and fiance from cradle to grave. This includes deltas on trades by trading houses trading oil and futures. It includes iphones that get shipped from China in boats that generate a shitload of GHG emissions. And of course every form fossil fuels take from reserve to end use.

Great post, Yesenia. This is how smart lawyers should be spending their time.