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On January 10, 2018, New York City announced the filing of its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against several oil companies including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, on the basis that they contributed to global warming. The City is seeking damages from the oil companies to reimburse the costs associated with being forced to deal with the impacts resulting from the effects of climate change.

The damages sought from the oil companies are in the billions of dollars with the goal of funding the infrastructure required to protect New York City including coastal protections, upgraded water and sewer infrastructure, heat mitigation measures and public health campaigns with the goal of protecting residents from the effects of extreme heat.

The claim relies on evidence suggesting that the oil companies were aware of the impacts that reliance on, and use of, fossil fuels would have on the planet and the effects of climate change as early as the 1980s. More than 50% of the greenhouse gas pollution from the fossil fuel industry has occurred since 1988. Sea levels have risen approximately one foot since 1900 largely due to the effects of climate change.

According to the statement released by the New York City Mayor’s office the oil companies deliberately engaged in a campaign of deception and denial about global warming and its impacts. The Mayor’s office also stated that there is information indicating that the oil companies continued to spread doubt about the effects of climate change despite their own scientific reports acknowledging the problem.

The claim filed by New York City states:

In this litigation, the City seeks to shift the costs of protecting the City from climate change impacts back onto companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat.

In addition to pursuing legal action New York City also announced its plan to divest its pension funds amounting to approximately $5 billion in investments from fossil fuel companies.

Also on January 12, 2018 members of Los Angeles City Council called for legal action against petroleum companies on the basis that fossil fuel emissions contributed to natural disasters and intense weather patterns resulting in increased costs for City Council and area taxpayers. The claim against the oil and gas companies would be on the basis that the companies knew that they were contributing to climate change yet failed to change their business practices.

In mid-2017, the Californian cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Imperial Beach, in addition to Santa Cruz, Marin, and San Mateo counties filed a claim against major oil companies due to climate change damages alleging “public nuisance.” Unfortunately, these claims failed to gain any traction in the courts.

In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court failed to consider a challenge brought against individual companies for the effects of climate change based on a public-nuisance. The U.S. Supreme Court  found that climate action by the Environmental Protection Agency effectively removed the ability to seek a remedy from the courts.

It will be interesting to see how the District Court deals with the case brought by New York City and whether this case can be distinguished on the basis that it is being brought under state, rather than the federal common law.

In Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, requested that local municipalities consider filing a lawsuit against oil companies for their portion of local climate costs. On October 12, 2017 the City of Victoria voted to send a “Climate Accountability Letter” to 20 of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies seeking to have the companies pay their share of climate costs. Victoria represented the third municipality in addition to the Districts of Highlands and Saanich to send this type of letter to the oil companies.

Rising sea levels, summer droughts, more severe hurricanes, and global warming have caused municipalities to deal with rising infrastructure costs. Local municipalities, already burdened with decreasing budgets, are starting to look for compensation for these costs from big oil companies who they view as being responsible for the effects of climate change. We will follow the claim brought by New York City to see whether the court is willing to hold the oil companies partially responsible for their role in global warming and climate change.

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