Suing for the Future

New York City goes after Big Oil for damages resulting from Climate Change

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that the city would divest its pension funds from fossil fuel companies, he quickly established New York  as a primary player at the forefront of global resistance to climate change.  Saying, “Climate change is real. We as a city (of) 8.5 million strong will no longer participate in a system that endangers our very own people,” Mayor de Blasio instructed New York City pension funds to divest  about five billion dollars from 194 fossil-fuel based companies within five years.

Mayor de Blasio also announced a lawsuit against five major investor-owned fossil-fuel reserve companies: ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and Chevron. This lawsuit, filed last Tuesday in federal court, states that, “A corporation that makes a product that causes severe harm when used exactly as intended should shoulder the costs of abating that harm,” thus using the same arguments as the class-action lawsuits against Big Tobacco of the 1990s.

The lawsuit alleges that “defendants knew decades ago that the fossil fuel products they produce and sell were altering the atmosphere and would cause a dire global warming problem. They acted on this knowledge to protect their own infrastructure and assets, and yet they told the public a very different story.”

The oil companies responded quickly. “This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” Chevron said.  Shell said  that climate-change policies,”should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices, and not by the courts.” ExxonMobil also responded, saying, “reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and action. 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.”

Stakes are high. Consider that the Master Settlement Agreement with Big Tobacco, reached by the combined Attorneys General of 46 states, is estimated to reach as much as $206 billion dollars in the first 25 years of the settlement.  While similar lawsuits were brought in California, including San Francisco and Oakland, New York City is by far the largest civil entity to bring this fight to Big Oil so far.  With deep pockets available to both sides,  there is only one thing we can be sure of, and that is that it will be a long road.

There is another interesting comparison to be made right here in Greenpoint, and that is with the historic oil spill under much of North Greenpoint.  Discovered in 1978, this spill is a result of oil refineries that once operated in this area, leaking over the course of 140 years, and is the largest urban spill in our nation’s history, larger than the famous Exxon Valdez spill.   A lawsuit spearheaded by New York State’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and advocacy group, Riverkeeper, resulted in a $25 million settlement between New York State and ExxonMobil in 2010, and the creation of North Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund (GCEF) to benefit the residents of Greenpoint.  It took about 30 years from the discovery of the underground oil spill to a settlement, of which this website is a direct result.

This recent action by the City to divest from fossil fuels, and sue Big Oil for damages will be one to watch for many years to come.  We encourage you, fellow Brooklynites and citizens of NYC, to join us in following the developments in this landmark case.