This Case Could Be a Game Changer in Cities’ Lawsuits Against Big Oil – Adam Rogers May. 29, 2018 6:00 AM


Are courts the right place to decide who’s to blame?

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This story was originally published by Wired and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

The city of Richmond, California, juts into the San Francisco Bay like the head of a rhinoceros looking west across the water, toward San Quentin State Prison and the tony towns north of the Golden Gate. It’s a low, industrial town, and 2,900 acres of it is an oil refinery.
Chevron is Richmond’s biggest employer, and through taxes contributes about a quarter of the city’s total budget. Chevron is also Richmond’s eternal nemesis. Industrial accidents are an ongoing issue. A fire at the refinery in 2012 sent 15,000 people to hospitals, resulting in a city lawsuit and a $5 million settlement. And in January Richmond joined six other California cities in suing oil companies for growing coastal threats related to climate change—primarily the sea level rise jeopardizing Richmond’s working coastline.
“We have 32 miles of shoreline on San Francisco bay, more than any other community, and a substantial amount of it is low-lying and subject to inundation,” says Tom Butt, Richmond’s mayor. “The root of this lawsuit and my biggest disappointment with these fossil fuel companies is that they’re all more interested in perpetuating themselves than they are in making a transition. They’re more interested in self-preservation than preserving the planet.”
In addition to the California cities’ various lawsuits, New York, Seattle, and municipalities in Colorado have all filed lawsuits against various combinations of oil companies since the summer of 2017. The suits are all at different stages; along with San Mateo, Richmond has been moved from state court to federal. Others have gone from federal back to state. On Thursday in a federal court in San Francisco, a judge heard a motion to dismiss from five fossil fuel companies, the defendants in the suit brought by San Francisco and Oakland. The same thing will happen in New York in June.
It’s a confusing landscape. The idea of cities using the courts as recourse in the fight against climate change is one that goes back at least to the 1990s, and the plaintiff side mapped out the detailed strategy just a few years ago. Now, in an era of federal deregulation and rising seas, these lawsuits feel increasingly urgent. The question is whether the courts will even see them as plausible.
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