San Francisco and Oakland are suing some of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, including the Chevron Corporation. The cities claim these companies are responsible for climate change, and are demanding compensation for environmental damage caused by their products.
The suits, filed separately in Alameda and San Francisco counties on September 19, say Chevron, which operates a refinery in Richmond, and four other defendants—BP, the ConocoPhillips Company, the Exxon Mobil Corporation, and Royal Dutch Shell—not only produce the bulk of the fossil fuels responsible for climate change, but also that the companies know their products cause “catastrophic” and “severe” impacts on the global climate. The cities accused the companies of creating a public nuisance.
Each lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the five oil and gas companies to pay into an abatement fund, which would help finance the building of sea walls and other infrastructure needed to deal with rising water levels in the Bay Area.
Although the suits do not ask for a specific dollar amount, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera estimated the damage to public and private property from bigger storm surges and higher tides could be more than $40 billion.
A report published in April by the state’s California Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team projects .3 to .8 feet of sea-level rise by 2030 if fossil-fuel use goes unchecked. By 2100, sea level along San Francisco’s coast could rise up to 10 feet.
“As a city surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco would be devastated by this increase,” Herrera said during a press conference to announce the suits.
In Oakland, sea level rise of that degree would threaten to put large parts of the city’s flatlands, including Jack London Square and the airport, under water, City Attorney Barbara Parker said during the press conference.
“It is past time to question the reality of global warming,” Parker said. “We are bearing witness every day as we are shocked and, in fact, traumatized, by catastrophe after catastrophe.”
The five companies are also accused of funding a million-dollar campaign to mislead the public about global warming. This effort, the suit reads, bears “a striking resemblance to Big Tobacco’s propaganda campaign to deceive the public about the adverse health effects of smoking.”
The suits cite a 2015 report published by Inside Climate News that revealed Exxon’s own scientific researchers confirmed fossil fuels’ role in climate change four decades ago, well before most of the world had heard of the looming environmental crisis.
It’s not clear whether the four additional companies named as defendants had similar in-house knowledge. But the suits cite a 1968 report by the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade association that represents the country’s oil and gas industry, that warned members carbon-dioxide emissions could cause “major changes in the earth’s environment” and a “rise in sea levels.”
“There seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe,” the API report concluded.
Yet, each defendant decided to continue its conduct and commit itself to massive fossil fuel production, the suits read.
“This was a deliberate decision to place company profits ahead of human safety and well-being and property, and to foist onto the public the costs of abating and adapting to the public nuisance of global warming,” the suits read.
Spokespersons for Chevron and Shell would not discuss specifics of the lawsuits, but said the cities’ efforts were not constructive.
“Chevron welcomes serious attempts to address the issue of climate change, but these suits do not do that,” Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie wrote in an email.
“We strongly support the agreement in Paris to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius or less,” Ray Fisher, a spokesperson for Shell, wrote in an email, “but we believe climate change is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change … not by the courts.”
Daren Beaudo, a spokesman for ConocoPhillips, declined to comment, and representatives from BP and Exxon could not be reached.
The Bay Area suits are the latest efforts to hold fossil-fuel companies accountable for damages wrought by rising seas. In July, Marin and San Mateo counties, along with the city of Imperial Beach in San Diego County, filed similar lawsuits against 37 oil and coal companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell.
Most attempts to litigate against oil and gas companies have been unsuccessful. In 2008, the Alaskan village of Kivalina, which needs to be relocated because of flooding, sued five oil companies, one coal company and 14 electric utilities. The case failed, though, when a district court ruled it was politically motivated and did not belong in the courts. Another, brought by California against six automakers, had a similar outcome.
Herrera and Parker said their lawsuits’ simplicity makes them different.
“Clearly, it is right and just that these defendants be liable for these costs,” Parker said. “When you know your product will create a public nuisance, in this case a product with potentially disastrous and catastrophic consequences, and when you continue to market that product and promote that product as safe, you are liable, period.”