New York City has sued a handful of the world’s largest oil producers in federal court, claiming they’re the world’s largest industrial contributors to climate change.
The “Big Apple” sued BP Plc, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell.
The city is seeking to build on successful legal challenges against producers of asbestos, cigarettes and lead paint. New York City is using the centuries-old legal concepts of “public nuisance” — an illegal threat to community welfare, such as a brothel, drug den or illegal hazardous waste dump — and “private nuisance,” an unreasonable interference with the use of someone else’s land, Bloomberg reported.
Representatives of the majors pushed back. “This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall told Bloomberg.
Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, said climate-change policies “should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices,” and not by the courts.
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and action,” Exxon Mobil spokesman Scott Silvestri told Bloomberg. “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.”
Cities have unsuccessfully tried to use nuisance law in the past. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 ruled 8-0 against a suit by a group of states and New York City that used federal public nuisance law to target companies operating fossil-fuel-burning power plants.
The court said federal law leaves regulation of greenhouse gas pollutants to the Environmental Protection Agency and doesn’t allow for suits by state and city governments or by private parties.
The suit filed late Tuesday in Manhattan U.S. District Court alleges the energy companies violated state law. Because of that, the Supreme Court ruling may not bar the city’s claims from going forward.
“This lawsuit is based upon the fundamental principle that a corporation that makes a product causing severe harm when used exactly as intended should shoulder the costs of abating that harm,” lawyers for the city said in the 64-page complaint, reviewed by Kallanish Energy.
“Defendants here produced, marketed, and sold massive quantities of fossil fuels — primarily oil and natural gas — despite knowing that the combustion and use of fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases (GHG), primarily carbon dioxide. Defendants have also known for decades that GHG pollution accumulates and remains in the atmosphere for up to hundreds of years, where it traps heat, a process commonly referred to as “climate change” or “global warming,” and that this process would cause grave harm.”