New York City takes on Big Oil in the courts

26 January 2018

The New York City government is suing the world’s five largest publicly traded oil companies, seeking to hold them responsible for present and future damage to the city from climate change.
The suit, filed on 7 January against BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, claims that the five companies together produced 11 % of all of global-warming gases via the oil and gas products they have sold over the years. Crucially, it also charges that the companies, and their industry, have known for some time what the consequences would be but sought to obscure them. These lawsuits have taken their cue from successful actions against tobacco companies in 1999 that hinged on whether or not those companies’ had prior knowledge of the harmful effects of smoking on health and failed to make smokers aware.
These energy companies are facing a lawsuit for billions of dollars. The city also said that it would start analysing ways to divest its pension funds, which have $189 bn in assets, away from fossil fuel companies “in a responsible way that is fully consistent with fiduciary obligations”.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city was seeking damages to “protect New Yorkers from the effects of climate change”. “We’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits,” said Mr de Blasio.
“As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”
The lawsuit, filed to federal court in New York, adds to the pressure on the fossil fuel companies, which are already fighting court cases in California brought by cities and counties over the harm they expect to suffer from climate change. Exxon in a court filing this week described those actions as “abusive law enforcement tactics and litigation” that were attempting to stifle the company’s right to “participate in the national dialogue about climate change and climate policy”.
However the New York mayor’s office accused the energy companies of being aware of the effects that burning fossil fuels would have on the planet’s atmosphere, citing “recently uncovered documents”. “They deliberately engaged in a campaign of deception and denial about global warming and its impacts, even while profiting from the sale of fossil fuels and protecting their own assets from the effects of rising seas and a changing climate,” the city said.

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