You are here

NYC's climate change lawsuit against energy industry is unnecessary, legal reform group says

Legal Newsline, January 23, 2018

By: Dee Thompson

On Jan. 10, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city recently filed suit against the five largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies, namely BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. The money from the lawsuit will be earmarked to protect the city from the effects of global warming.

Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York asks, “What’s next? Do we sue cows for all the methane they produce?”

The city’s website has a lengthy announcement about the suit.

"New York City is standing up for future generations by becoming the first major US city to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels,” said Mayor de Blasio in the city's release.

“At the same time, we’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits. As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”

Stebbins disagrees with the city’s plans.

“We cannot litigate our way out of climate change,” Stebbins said.

The city’s lawsuit seeks money not only for future possible issues arising from climate change, but also restitution for past damage that it attributes to climate change, such as the devastation from Hurricane Sandy a few years ago.

The city website notes that funds are needed to “...protect the city, its property and its residents from the ongoing and increasingly severe impacts of climate change,” that includes putting in place “...physical infrastructure, like coastal protections, upgraded water and sewer infrastructure, and heat mitigation, but also public health campaigns, for example to help protect residents from the effects of extreme heat.”

The city claims it is already embarking on a more than $20 billion project protect residents from climate change effects.

In addition to the lawsuit, the city is also divesting its investment portfolio of any investment in the oil companies that it alleges are to blame for climate change. On Jan. 10, it announced a goal to divest city monies ($189 billion in pension funds) from fossil fuel reserve owners within the next five years, making New York City the first major U.S. pension plan to do so.

Stebbins sees the lawsuit as unnecessary.

“There are a million ways to address climate change. Litigation is not one of them,” he said.

This lawsuit isn’t the first of its kind.

Eight cities and counties in California have filed similar lawsuits against the big oil companies, and the city of Boulder, Colo., is planning its own.

In 2015, Juliana et al v. United States was brought by Our Children's Trust, an environmental advocacy group. It alleged the government knowingly endangered children with the burning of fossil fuels, and it seeks sweeping changes in government programs that subsidize the development of fossil fuels. The plaintiffs’ attorneys want to take the case to trial.

As reported last November by the Inside Climate News website, “A trial would mean that decades of federal policy on fossil fuels and climate change—including information that had previously been unknown or hidden—could come to light through discovery and be subject to public scrutiny even before the court renders a decision.”