This week, ExxonMobil asked to depose 16 California state officials who sued the company over selling fuel they say is warming the planet, raising the seas and, they contend, threatening their communities — just the most recent escalation in the legal fight between the largest U.S. oil and gas firms and blue-state officials over climate change.
Undeterred, one of the most prominent members of the latter group — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — sued ExxonMobil and four other oil companies on Wednesday, seeking to hold them responsible for present and future damages to the city from climate change.
The suit, filed Tuesday against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, claims the companies together produced 11 percent of all of global warming gases through the oil and gas products they have sold over the years, Chris Mooney and I reported Wednesday. It also charges that the companies and the industry have known for some time about the "consequences of climate change" but sought to obscure them.
“In this litigation, the City seeks to shift the costs of protecting the City from climate change impacts back onto the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat,” says the lawsuit brought by New York corporation counsel Zachary Carter, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The city of New York joins the state of New York in taking legal action against ExxonMobil, a company that was once headquartered in Manhattan. The Empire State's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is investigating whether the company misled investors about the risks climate change posed to its long-term business. ExxonMobil has tried in court to stop that investigation, along with a parallel one being carried out by Massachusetts.
The lawsuit marks a renewed emphasis among Democrats and their environmental allies on holding oil companies accountable for what they see as their role in global warming — even as much of the activist energy around climate change is being burned fighting and fuming against President Trump for rolling back environmental regulations and announcing the United States would pull out of the Paris climate agreement.
The legal strategy being pursued by New York City has been embraced by several California cities and counties, but lawsuits seeking to blame companies for their alleged role have floundered.
It remains unclear whether a new wave of litigation — propelled by stronger climate science, reports about how much some companies knew about climate change decades ago, and somewhat divergent legal strategy — will succeed where those efforts failed.
Last year, California’s Marin County, San Mateo County and the City of Imperial Beach similarly sued a group of fossil fuel companies over damages related to climate change — citing a theory called “public nuisance,” which basically argues that companies are causing an injury to the localities under common law. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland and the city and county of Santa Cruz have also filed suit this year.
“I think the significant development here is that this is the first of these cases in this last year that’s filed outside of California,” said Michael Burger, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. If more and more localities sue, “we might be able to see adequate pressure applied to these companies to inspire action on climate change,” he said.
So far, that has not been the case. ExxonMobil has instead responded strongly to the claims by requesting depositions for “potential claims of abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and violation of ExxonMobil’s civil rights.”
BP and ConocoPhillips, two other defendants named in the lawsuit, declined to comment. The other three argued the court system is not the place to settle climate policy.
- “This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall wrote in an email. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement. Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory and economic priorities.”
- ExxonMobil responded to New York’s lawsuit on its blog, where the firm has also challenged investigative news reports from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that showed the company was an early pioneer in climate change science in the 1980s, which were cited in the suit. “ExxonMobil welcomes any well-meaning and good faith attempt to address the risks of climate change,” Suzanne McCarron, Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs, wrote. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. 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.”
- Climate change “is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers,” Curtis Smith, head of U.S. media relations for Shell, wrote in an email, “not by the courts.”
Several cases challenging individual companies based on a "public nuisance" theory have failed — including at the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2011 that climate actions by the Environmental Protection Agency in effect removed the ability to use the courts as a remedy.
The difference now, Burger said, is that the claims are being brought under state, rather than federal, law — and that strategy remains to be tested.
New York charges in the suit that it is “spending billions of dollars” to protect its coastlines, its infrastructure and its citizens from climate warming.
“To deal with what the future will inevitably bring, the City must build sea walls, levees, dunes, and other coastal armament, and elevate and harden a vast array of City-owned structures, properties, and parks along its coastline,” the suit says. “The costs of these largely unfunded projects run to many billions of dollars and far exceed the City’s resources.”
The suit does not specify how much money it is asking for from the oil companies in what it calls “compensatory damages,” saying that should be established by the legal proceedings.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, de Blasio focused on the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, calling it “a tragedy wrought by the actions of the fossil fuel companies.” He detailed the 44 people who died in New York as a result of Sandy, as well as the estimated $19 billion in damages it caused, saying: “That is the face of climate change. That is what it means in human and real terms.”
De Blasio claimed fossil fuel companies were complicit in worsening climate change because they knew of the problem decades ago but continued to sell a product to Americans that contributed to more greenhouse gas emissions.
“The city of New York is taking on these five giants because they are the central actors, they are the first ones responsible for this crisis, and they should not get away with it anymore,” he said. “We’re going after those who have profited. And what a horrible, disgusting way to profit — the way it puts so many people’s lives in danger. It’s time that they are held accountable. It’s time that things change in the way we do business.”
In addition to the litigation, officials said they expect to divest up to $5 billion in investments from as many as 190 companies with fossil fuel ties, even as they promised to maintain their fiduciary duty to New York’s pensioners.
“We’re using this moment to send a message to the world,” New York Comptroller Scott Stringer said. “We believe a green economy is a thriving economy.”
Bill McKibben, an author and co-founder of climate advocacy group 350.org, praised the city’s actions on Wednesday.
“I’ve been watching the climate fight for the last 30 years,” McKibben told reporters. “This is one of the handful of most important moments in that 30-year fight.”
But the oil and gas lobby said that by not investing in their industry, New York was doing city workers a disservice.
“Today Mayor de Blasio turned his back millions of first responders, police officers and public employees who depend on their pensions to provide for themselves and their families in retirement,” said Karen Moreau of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. oil and gas lobbying group.
“Government pension managers have a responsibility by law to seek the greatest return for their investors, and pensions that invest in oil and natural gas companies have delivered a stronger return than other investments.”
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— The burn continues after Interior's Sunshine State decision: In an interview Wednesday with The Post's Darryl Fears, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke defended his decision to exempt Florida — and just Florida, so far — from Interior's five-year offshore oil drilling plan after about a dozen governors asked for their states to be removed from consideration.
Zinke said he first met Scott when his state and the federal government were preparing for Hurricane Irma, then a second time when the two worked on Everglades restoration. Zinke said he felt a personal connection with the governor, so when Scott contacted him in writing about the offshore decision, he felt an obligation to respond.
“Quite frankly, Gov. Scott called me and [also] expressed in writing a desire to have a meeting,” he said. That meeting was the first “in what I believe will be a series of conversations” with other governors, the secretary said. “I will no doubt talk to every governor. It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re Republican or Democrat. This is going to be a long process. This is going to be at least a year with public comment. We have to get it right, look at the geology, look at the science.”
Scott’s office said the governor raised the issue personally with Zinke during a Capitol Hill meeting in October.
Despite that commitment to meet with every state leader, at least one Democratic governor — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown — had trouble getting Zinke to return her calls, she said on CNN according to New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown telling CNN that Zinke hasn’t return her calls on her opposition to offshore drilling.— Lisa Friedman (@LFFriedman) January 11, 2018
David Weigel and John Wagner have more on the "bipartisan uproar" over Zinke's drilling decision: "Nine of the 11 states that opposed the drilling order have gubernatorial races this year, and many of the most competitive contests for the House of Representatives will unfold in districts that touch coastline ... "
Prominent Republicans slammed Trump over the decision:
- “We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline,” said South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R).
- “It smacks of what we never want to see in politics which is: Is it self-serving?” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said. “I mean, you can’t say, ‘I don’t want to see an oil rig from Mar-a-Lago’ as you look out from the waters of Palm Beach, but it’s okay to look at an oil rig out from Hilton Head or Charleston, South Carolina.”
Democrats were also unhappy:
- “Is it because the governor of Florida is a Republican and the Virginia governor and governor-elect are Democrats?” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “Are they putting Florida off-limits because President Trump has a vacation property — Mar-a-Lago — on the Atlantic coast of Florida and he worries about the environmental risk there, but he’s not worried about environmental risk in Virginia?”
— Interior reorg: Zinke made more news by rolling out a plan to reorganize his department, which in The Post interview he called "his largest priority, in addition to shoring up the National Park Service’s crumbling infrastructure, with its $12 billion shortfall for maintenance of buildings, roads, bridges and other projects."
Noting that regions within Interior bureaus are not "aligned geographically," Zinke said he wants regions to be defined by watersheds and geographic basins instead. For example, The Post's Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin write, a single stream with trout and salmon can fall under the view of five separate agencies, one for each fish, another for a dam downstream and yet another to manage the water, and each generate reports that often conflict.
Zinke said the Trump administration is planning hearings on the Hill to make sure his plan lures bipartisan support. Moving thousands of employees around the country would require congressional authorization.
Former interior secretary Sally Jewell was one of several people who expressed doubt that such a sweeping reorganization can work, citing a time when Interior sought to consolidate the Bureau of Land Management offices for New Mexico and Arizona because the topography of the states is so similar. "Congress came after us," she said. "You would’ve thought we were ending the world as we knew it."
— Parsing Trump's energy chatter: Speaking Wednesday during a joint news conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Trump riffed on about at least three different energy issues — each of them head-scratchers: Let's explain:
1) Trump praised hydropower by complimenting Norway. "One of the great assets of Norway is a thing called ‘water,’ " Trump said, “and they have tremendous hydropower. Tremendous. In fact, most of your electricity is produced by hydro."
That is true, The Post's Philip Bump explains, since Norway gets more than 95 percent of its power from hydroelectricity. But the United States gets a significant portion of its electricity from hydroelectric generation, too — 5 percent of it, making hydropower the fifth-largest generation method in the country.
2) Trump criticizes wind energy: Despite nominally having an "all of the above" energy strategy, Trump continued his disparagement of wind turbines — or as he has come to call them, "windmills." "My opponent Hillary was not for a strong military, she was for windmills," he said. As Amy Harder at Axios explains:
The term "windmills" is often used by either people who don't understand the energy resource or its opponents who want to paint an inaccurate image in people's minds. They're called wind turbines. https://t.co/ekthQhkl1s— Amy Harder (@AmyAHarder) January 10, 2018
3) Trump said the United States could "conceivably go back in" to the Paris deal: “Frankly, it’s an agreement that I have no problem with, but I had a problem with the agreement that they signed, because, as usual, they made a bad deal," the president said.
It beats us to explain how Trump could simultaneously have "a problem with the agreement that they signed" yet still say "it's an agreement that I have no problem with." Best guess: Trump does not take issue with a climate agreement in principle, but does object to the particular agreement President Obama brokered. Trump signaled a return to the accord would depend on a deal that did not penalize the country for its fossil fuels.
In any case, the president's Paris remarks Wednesday were just another in a long line of Trump hinting that he could be swayed to change his stance — only to later do what he was going to do all along, and get out of the agreement.
— Pruitt wants “open honest” climate talk: In an interview with Reuters this week, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said having an “open honest transparent” discussion about the changing climate was one of this year's priorities for the agency. Also among his priorities: replacing Obama-era clean water regulations and dealing with lead contamination in public water.
“The climate is changing. That’s not the debate. The debate is how do we know what the ideal surface temperature is in 2100?,” he said.
Scientists counter that an open discussion — in academic journals and conferences — is already how climate science is carried out, and that the vast majority of climate scientists have concluded human activity is warming the planet.
— Pruitt probe, expanded: Meanwhile, the EPA’s internal watchdog has expanded for the third time its audit of Pruitt’s travel. “Based on additional congressional request, the scope of our review is now expanded to include the Administrator’s travel through December 31, 2017,” the inspector general said in a Wednesday notice.
— Trump’s problematic renominations: The Washington Post’s John Wagner reports on the slew of controversial administration picks the president has submitted for reconsideration, despite the fact that some of the nominees withdrew or languished in the GOP-controlled Senate last year. Among the renominations are Jim Bridenstine, nominee for NASA administrator, and Kathleen Hartnett White, the controversial nominee to lead the Council on Environmental Quality who expressed doubts about climate change.
“They’ve renominated a lot of folks who aren’t going to be confirmed,” Jim Manley, a lobbyist and longtime aide to former Senate minority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), told The Post. “Instead of finding more qualified candidates, they’re doubling down and trying to roll the Senate.”
-— GOP leaders nix gas tax talks: Republican leaders quickly shut down a suggestion from Trump to increase the gas tax to help pay for a national infrastructure plan, The Post’s Damian Paletta and Erica Werner report. Trump had proposed raising the gas tax to 50 cents per gallon, which would be triple the current level.
— Truck pollution levels called rigged: Ford Motor Company is being sued for rigging at least 500,000 heavy-duty trucks to pass emissions tests, according to a new lawsuit filed from truck owners. The company is the latest in the list of top automakers accused of cheating emissions standards, starting with allegations against Volkswagen in 2015. Bloomberg News has the details: “Ford’s F-250 and F-350 Super Duty diesel pickups, a slice of the top-selling F-Series, are spewing emissions as much as 50 times the legal limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants, according to the complaint. The trucks sold from 2011 to 2017 cost $8,400 more than their gasoline-fueled counterparts, the filing shows.”
— Another group upset with Zinke's Florida decision is Big Oil: Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's biggest lobbying group, called the announcement "premature" in a statement Wednesday.
"Americans support increased domestic energy production," Gerard said, "and the administration and policymakers should follow the established process before making any decisions or conclusions that would undermine our nation's energy security." API cited the eastern Gulf of Mexico — a region south of the Florida panhandle and west of Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys — as an area of interest for development. Oil drilling is already allowed in the western and central Gulf regions, where the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred in 2010.
— Latest on the California mudslides: Dozens of people are still missing as the catastrophic mudslides continue to devastate Southern California. The death toll rose to 17 as of Wednesday, with 28 people reported injured and another 17 missing, the Los Angeles Times reported. So far, the mudflow caused by heavy rains in the areas ravaged by recent fires has destroyed more than 100 homes and damaged 300 more.
In Montecito’s Romero Canyon area, hundreds of people trapped by debris were awaiting rescue on Wednesday.
Max Ufberg, Mark Berman and Scott Wilson report: "The human tragedy, which unfolded overnight Tuesday and continued Wednesday, far exceeded the emotional punch of the severe property damage. Whole families have been carried away by the mud. Rescued children who survived their parents remain in critical condition in a hospital whose staffers are challenged by road closures and their own damaged property."
Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz explains how the Thomas Fire, the largest blaze in the state’s history, planted the seed for the deadly mudslides: “There was no warning, officials said, which is almost always the case with mudslides. They come with no notice, except for the pounding rain… It’s one of nature’s more tragic paradoxes; a terrible wildfire season, one that begs for cool days and torrential rain, often evolves into an equally grim winter with deadly flash flooding and mudslides. Wildfires don’t just burn aboveground plants and structures; they physically alter the ground itself. So, while it’s true that the absence of trees, grass and brush in a wildfire scar will promote water movement and flash flooding, it’s not the biggest effect… Intense wildfires plow right through that plant-friendly stuff.”
— Cold exposes infrastructure woes: The recent extreme cold has revealed concerns with subpar conditions in some schools in big-city districts, including failing heating systems and bursting pipes, a new analysis from the Associated Press has found: “Experts who have been sounding alarms about the state of many public school buildings say the problems that struck last week are a direct result of years of inadequate funding for basic upkeep. The need is especially great in urban centers where older buildings serve poorer children and maintenance is often put off until it becomes an exponentially more costly emergency repair… In Baltimore, six schools were still closed early this week, down from 60 at the height of the district’s heating crisis. Images circulated on social media last week of Baltimore students bundled up in winter jackets in their classrooms and rubbing their hands together for warmth.”
- The EPA holds an informational webinar on how to apply for an EPA P3 Grant.
- The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a “Better Buildings peer exchange call to discuss what’s on the horizon for residential energy efficiency in 2018.”
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts a discussion with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
- Politico holds an event on "Driverless Cars and the Future of Mobility" on Jan. 16.
- The Bipartisan Policy Center hosts FERC commissioners Neil Chatterjee and Cheryl LaFleur for a discussion on the proposed Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule on Jan. 16.
- The United States Energy Association holds the 14th Annual State of the Energy Industry Forum.
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds its 6th annual Lunch & Learn event to decide what topics to cover in 2018 on Jan. 23.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on Canada’s energy future on Jan. 23.
Ice breakers patrol the Hudson River during a New York freeze:
The Post's Heather Long grades five factors of the economy under President Trump:
At the European premiere of "The Post," Actor Tom Hanks criticized those who are ‘delegitimizing’ the free press:
Watch Jimmy Kimmel on "Trump's 2,000 lies:"