By: John Breslin
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is unashamedly up-front about what he wants to see happen to the fossil fuel industry.
In a podcast hosted by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on Jan. 28, de Blasio stated: "Let's help bring the death knell to the industry."
It follows the filing by New York City of a lawsuit against five of the largest fossil fuel companies, an action similar to one taken by a number of municipalities and counties in California.
The city has also decided to divest from the fossil fuel industry, announcing a five-year plan to move some $5 billion of pension fund money out of those investments.
"I want to urge every city, every county to do the same - divest, divest from the fossil fuel industry," de Blasio said. "Let's help bring the death knell to the industry that has done so much harm."
The city announced last month it had filed suit against the fossil fuel companies, and de Blasio said it will be looking for billions of dollars to help for the costs associated with climate change. He cited Hurricane Sandy, which he said cost the city more than $19 billion.
"Like the tobacco companies that were successfully sued...we are also suing five of the biggest, including ExxonMobil for example, who systematically poisoned the earth, knew about it, covered it up, explained it away, tried to hook people more and more on their product," de Blasio said.
"We think that what every city can do and what every locality, use your litigation power to go at these bad actors and get the resources back.
"By divesting, let's prove this is an economically unviable industry. This is an industry whose assets should stay in the ground. It's not the industry of the future."
de Blasio promised the city will find other "good investments," which, he said, will "protect our retirees for sure but not at the cost of investing in something that is poisoning the earth."
The American Petroleum Institute responded to a request for comment by sending a press release issued last month after the divestment plan and lawsuit were announced.
It did not respond to follow-up requests for comment on de Blasio's further statements that were made on the podcast with Sanders.
API New York Executive Director Karen Moreau in a statement criticized the mayor following the announcement of the divestment plan.
"Mayor de Blasio turned his back on millions of first responders, police officers, firefighters and other public employees who depend on their pensions to provide for themselves and their families in retirement,” Moreau said.
“Government pension managers have a responsibility by law to seek the greatest return for their investors, and pensions that invest in oil and natural gas companies have historically delivered a higher return than other investments."
Moreau described the plan as one that is "deliberately hurting pension holders" and "a disgraceful way to score cheap political points."
"Elected officials should never use taxpayer resources to hijack public pensions to advance a wrong-headed political ideology," she added.
Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, previously told Legal Newsline that the lawsuit is unnecessary.
“There are a million ways to address climate change. Litigation is not one of them,” he said.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, states that New York must "deal with what the future will inevitably bring."
"The city must build sea walls, levees, dunes and other coastal armament and elevate and harden a vast array of city-owned structures, properties, and parks along its coastline,” the lawsuit reads.
“The costs of these largely unfunded projects run to many billions of dollars and far exceed the city’s resources.”
But experts are skeptical over whether these types of lawsuits against fossil fuel companies could be successful under any normal litigation.
"I have hard time seeing it succeed (and) would be very surprised," Tristan R. Brown, a lawyer and assistant professor, SUNY Syracuse, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, told Legal Newsline.
Brown believes the plaintiffs are going to have an extremely hard time under any normal litigation as they have to establish specific damages, and they have to show Exxon and other individual companies are responsible, he added.
Brown does not believe the oil companies are going to fold and settle.
Indeed, ExxonMobil, one of the companies being sued in California and now New York, has responded aggressively to the legal action taken by West Coast communities.
Exxon has filed a countersuit in a Texas court, one that accuses named officials of conspiracy and abusive law enforcement tactics. San Francisco, Oakland and San Mateo County are among those suing Exxon.
In its filing, lawyers for ExxonMobil stated, "Through abusive law enforcement tactics and litigation in California, respondents and others are attempting to stifle ExxonMobil’s exercise, in Texas, of its First Amendment right to participate in the national dialogue about climate change and climate policy."