New York City Vs. Dirty Oil

In a time when extreme disasters like hurricanes and heat waves have become the “new normal” New York City is fighting back. The City seeks to lead the assault on climate change and the Trump administration, and plans to divest $5bn from fossil fuels. The NYC government is suing the world’s largest publicly traded oil companies over climate change — holding them responsible for present and future damage to the city.

According to the court document, New York has suffered from flooding and erosion due to climate change. Because of looming future threats, the city is seeking to “shift the costs of protecting the city from climate change impacts back on to the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat”. The filing also claims that just 100 fossil fuel producers are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution, and these five targeted companies the largest contributors.

The Lawsuit Against Big Oil

The New York City government filed the lawsuit against BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell. The suit claims that these companies produced 11% of all of global-warming gases through the oil and gas products they’ve sold over the years. It also charges that the companies and the industry they are part of have known for some time about the consequences but have downplayed and even denied this in public.

The lawsuit reads, “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.” It was brought by New York corporation counsel Zachary Carter and filed in US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“New York City is standing up for future generations by becoming the first major US city to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. He added, “At the same time, 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. 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.”

Reaction from Oil Companies

While we are hoping to see this lawsuit put adequate pressure on these companies to inspire positive action, so far, that has not been the case. ExxonMobil has reacted strongly against the lawsuit, seeking to depose California state officials and others involved in bringing the cases for “potential claims of abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and violation of ExxonMobil’s civil rights.”

Head of US media relations for Shell, Curtis Smith, wrote by email 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… not by the courts.”

In an email, Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall said, “This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change. 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.”

The two other defendants named in the lawsuit, BP and ConocoPhillips, declined to comment.

Overwhelming Support for the Lawsuit

In addition to the litigation, officials also said that 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.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said, “We’re using this moment to send a message to the world. We believe a green economy is a thriving economy.”

Bill McKibben, an author and co-founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org, praised the New York City’s actions. “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.”