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California Communities Facing Rising Sea Level Sue Big Oil Companies For Damage Done

Two counties in California, Marin and San Mateo Counties, as well as the city of Imperial Beach, sued 37 fossil fuel corporations for damage they claim the companies allegedly knew would occur as a result of their contribution to rising sea level and global warming.

“Major corporate members of the fossil fuel industry have known for nearly a half century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel products create greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet and changes our climate,” the lawsuits assert. “They have known for decades that those impacts could be catastrophic and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would not be reversible.”

Nevertheless, according to the lawsuit, fossil fuel corporations “engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats, discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt in the minds of customers, consumers, regulators, the media, journalists, teachers, and the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution.”

The lawsuits seek “compensatory damages,” relief for the “nuisances” described in the complaint, “punitive damages,” and the “disgorgement” or giving up of profits.

San Francisco Bay Area and San Mateo County, the San Mateo lawsuit states, are “particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and changes in salinity, temperature, and runoff.” San Mateo’s “topography, geography, and land use patterns make it particularly susceptible to injuries from sea level rise.”

“Because the California coast south of Cape Mendocino, including San Mateo, is projected, due to its geophysical characteristics, to experience a higher rate of sea level rise and a greater absolute amount of sea level rise” than the global average.

The lawsuit adds, “San Mateo County’s sea level rise vulnerability analyses anticipate extreme sea level rise events equivalent to a 1% annual-chance flood of 42-inches over and above expected changes to the mean sea level height along the county. Such an event, even with the minimum anticipated sea level rise, would inundate thousands of acres of county land, breach flood protection infrastructure, and swamp San Francisco International Airport (located within the county), among other impacts.”

Marin County anticipates a one percent “annual chance flood of at least three feet to occur in any given year. Such an event, even with the minimum anticipated sea level rise, would inundate thousands of additional acres of county land.”

“Imperial Beach’s sea level rise vulnerability analyses anticipate extreme sea level rise events equivalent to a one percent annual-chance storm wave event. Such an event, compounded by anticipated increases in mean sea level height along the City, would likely turn the entire area of the city bounded by the Pacific Ocean, the San Diego Bay, the Tijuana Estuary, and 8th Street into an island surrounded on all sides by water,” the Imperial Beach complaint contends.

As noted by Courthouse News, these are first-of-their-kind lawsuits that make public nuisance claims against major fossil fuel corporations and appear to follow the blueprint states and cities employed when fighting tobacco companies in the 1990s.

Similar climate lawsuits have not produced desired results. In 2011, the Supreme Court blocked a lawsuit by nine states, which challenged corporate energy polluters. Another lawsuit was tossed in 2012 by the Ninth Circuit when indigenous Alaskans attempted to use federal public nuisance law to sue energy corporations.

But each lawsuit contains extensive documentation of the ways in which fossil fuel corporations were aware of the threat of climate change.

American Petroleum Institute (API) members, which include the 37 sued corporations, “received a status report” on environmental research projects funded by API. It described a report from 1968 that contained details on the impact “fossil fuel products” would have on the environment, including global warming and sea level rise.

Scientists for Exxon warned in a 1977 presentation and later in a 1978 briefing that carbon dioxide “concentrations were building in the Earth’s atmosphere at an increasing rate, that CO2 emissions attributable to fossil fuels were retained in the atmosphere, and that CO2 was contributing to global warming.”

“There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels. . . [and that] man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical,” the report declared.

API and its members “convened a task force to monitor and share cutting edge climate research among the oil industry” in 1979. The API CO2 Task Force “included senior scientists and engineers from nearly every major U.S. and multinational oil and gas company.” They were to assess the implications of “emerging science on the petroleum and gas industries” and identify “where reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” from “fossil fuel products could be made.”

This type of research continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Uncertainties in climate modeling were acknowledged, but according to the lawsuits, this was “with respect to the magnitude and timing of climate impacts resulting from fossil fuel consumption.” The industry never doubted that severe climate impacts would occur.

“The environmental harm these companies knowingly caused to our precious shorelines, and the entire world, and their deliberate efforts to conceal those frightening truths, jeopardizes the public’s health and places the financial burden of those consequences on the taxpayers,” said San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley.

Horsley added, “With this legal action, the County of San Mateo and our partners in Marin County and Imperial Beach are standing up for our residents and businesses to hold these companies accountable for their emissions and lay blame where it truly belongs. The damage they’ve caused and continue to cause is unacceptable. But the fact that they’d prioritize their bottom line over the health and security of the public — including children — in the face of hard science is unconscionable.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."