New York City sues Shell, ExxonMobil and other oil companies over climate change

 In U.S.

Waves wash over the sea wall at Battery Park in New York in 2012 as Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

The New York City government is suing the world’s five largest publicly traded oil companies, seeking to hold them responsible for present and future damage to the city from climate change.

The suit, filed Tuesday against BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, claims the companies together produced 11 percent of all of global-warming gases through the oil and gas products they have sold over the years. It also charges that the companies and the industry they are part of have known for some time about the consequences but sought to obscure them.

“In this litigation, the City seeks to shift the costs of protecting the City from climate change impacts back onto the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat,” reads the lawsuit, brought by New York corporation counsel Zachary Carter and filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The legal strategy has already been embraced by several California cities and counties, but prior lawsuits seeking to blame companies for their role in causing climate change have foundered.

It remains unclear whether a new wave of litigation — propelled by stronger climate science, reports about how much some companies knew about climate change decades ago, and somewhat divergent legal strategies — will succeed where those efforts failed.

In California last year, Marin County, San Mateo County and the city of Imperial Beach similarly sued a group of fossil fuel companies over damage related to climate change — citing a theory called “public nuisance,” which basically argues that companies are causing an injury to the localities under common law. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland and the city and county of Santa Cruz have also filed suit.

“I think the significant development here is that this is the first of these cases in this last year that’s filed outside of California,” said Michael Burger, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. If more and more localities sue, “we might be able to see adequate pressure applied to these companies to inspire action on climate change,” he said.

So far, that has not been the response. ExxonMobil has instead reacted strongly to the claims, seeking in Texas court to depose California state officials and others involved in bringing the cases for “potential claims of abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and violation of ExxonMobil’s civil rights.”

Climate change “is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers,” Curtis Smith, head of U.S. media relations for Shell, wrote by email, “not by the courts.”

BP and ConocoPhillips, two other defendants named in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Exxon responded to New York’s lawsuit on its blog, where the firm has also challenged investigative reports from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that showed the company was an early pioneer in climate-change science in the 1980s, reports that were cited in the suit.

“ExxonMobil welcomes any well-meaning and good faith attempt to address the risks of climate change,” wrote Suzanne McCarron, Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. Lawsuits of this kind — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.”

Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall said in an email: “This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement. Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory and economic priorities.”

Several prior cases challenging individual companies based on a public-nuisance theory have failed — including at the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2011 that climate action by the Environmental Protection Agency in effect removed the ability to use the courts as a remedy.

But the difference now, Burger said, is that the claims are being brought under state, rather than federal, common law — and that strategy remains to be tested.

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