Last week, two coalitions of California cities argued before the 9th Circuit Court that their cases against the fossil fuel industry should remain in state courts, as they are suing over local issues: the costs of adapting to climate change.
More specifically, these cases use the industry’s denial campaigns as evidence that companies were aware their product caused climate change, and hold that they should be held accountable for these costs. Richard Wiles of the Center for Climate Integrity told the Desert Sun that there’s precedent, as “these are simply cost-recovery cases like the opiods cases or tobacco cases or lead paint cases.”
Big Oil’s defense team, though, very much does not want to talk about that, and would really rather these cases be moved to a more friendly federal court.
As Phil Goldberg, lawyer for the fossil-fuel-funded National Association of Manufacturers’ dedicated ExxonKnew-pushback effort, the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project (which fights to keep manufacturers from being held accountable in court like this), told the SF Chronicle, he thinks that “this really isn’t a liability issue.” He continued: “energy companies shouldn’t be liable for selling oil and gas and other energy products that we need every day.”
Expanding further at NAM’s blog, Goldberg revealed the industry’s second line of defense is that the 2018 Juliana case set a precedent that the judicial branch can’t answer these questions, only the federal or legislative bodies can regulate emissions.
But despite Big Oil’s insistence that these cases are “drenched in federal issues,” setting fossil fuel policy is not what the case is about. As Center for Climate Integrity’s legal director Alyssa Johl succinctly explained to ExxonKnews, these municipalities are suing “major fossil fuel companies to recover the climate costs and damages caused by a 30-year campaign of lies and deception, for which they should be held liable.”
And despite the setback of the Juliana ruling, which called for courts to rule that the government should compel emission reductions, these cases aren’t about setting policy of any sort. Instead, Johl says, “these cases– and the legal theories behind them– closely resemble litigation that has been brought against asbestos, and tobacco, and opioid manufacturers. These companies sold a product they knew to be dangerous to consumers and the general public, they hid their knowledge of those dangers, and they should be held accountable for their actions and the harm they caused.”
When a manufacturer realizes their product is dangerous, they have a responsibility to inform the public. But the fossil fuel industry not only failed to “warn the public and share what they knew about the causes and consequences of climate change and the dangers that their products would cause,” Johl says, they also failed to “not lie and deceive and create doubt about climate science in the way that they did. That is, in other words, what’s known as consumer fraud.”
While Big Oil’s lawyers want to argue that these cases are “drenched in federal issues,” what we’ve really been drenched in is the industry’s misleading propaganda, and, in the case of the Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon, or any number of pipeline spills, their actual product.
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