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Part 1: Cities in the US are taking big oil to court

Coal, oil, and gas are responsible for 86% of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions in the past 10 years. Will these companies be held accountable?

The city of Baltimore recently won a landmark case against some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies, attempting to hold them accountable for their role in climate change.

The court’s decision is expected to have a substantial ripple effect on similar lawsuits filed by other U.S. cities and states.

Baltimore, a U.S. city located in the coastal state of Maryland, has witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand with increasing sea level, rainfall, and flooding. The city is now facing tens of millions of dollars in costs related to the associated damages as well as threats to public health.

As each summer brings longer and more severe heat waves, the city is required to upgrade housing and provide cooling centers to combat the increased risk of heat stroke and asthma-related hospital visits.

As a result, the city government argues that major fossil fuel companies like British Petroleum (BP), Shell, and Exxon must help pay for the costs of climate change because they misled the public about how their products contribute to global warming.

What role has the fossil fuel industry played in misinformation?

Following an investigation of Exxon’s engagement in climate science by InsideClimate News, it was found that the oil giant knew of climate change as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue.

After years researching the effects of burning fossil fuels on the climate, Exxon helped found and lead the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an alliance of big-name companies that actively opposed efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions and challenge the science of global warming and climate action. Members of the GCC also included Shell, BP, Chevron, and the United States Chamber of Commerce.

In June 2021, Keith McCoy, ExxonMobil’s now ex-Director of Federal Relations was interviewed by Greenpeace UK’s investigation unit under the impression he was being head hunted for a new job.

When questioned about the company’s role in climate change he stated “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes […] Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true”.

In a congressional hearing in October 2021, panelists questioned the CEOs of Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, all of whom denied the companies’ involvement in misleading the public on climate change.

Currently facing backlash from the public, scientists, and politicians at all levels of government across the United States, said companies are now looking at creative ways to solidify their defence in court.

Oil companies on the defence

Before evidence was able to be presented at the Baltimore case, the fossil fuel companies focused their defense on whether such lawsuits can take place in state courts considering climate change is a global issue that is regulated by the federal government.

Karen Sokol, a law professor who studies climate liability cases, argues that such a defense is unreasonable because the allegations against the companies depend on state laws that are meant to protect the public from misleading marketing.

In Maryland and other states like California and Texas, oil companies are also accused of using scare tactics to intimidate activists, courts, and their opponents engaged in similar lawsuits.

This follows claims made by the companies stating that the allegations made against them could threaten the U.S. oil supply.

In Texas, where ExxonMobil is headquartered, the company is fighting off cities in California who are seeking compensation for wildfires, flooding, and other extreme weather events.

In response to these lawsuits, the company has asked the Texas Supreme Court to allow it to use a law that would enable it to take legal action against these city officials. The company argues that in filing lawsuits against ExxonMobil over its role in the climate crisis, said officials are conspiring against the company’s First Amendment rights (the right to free speech).

Over the coming months, numerous rulings in states such as Maryland, California, and Texas, and at the federal level, will dictate the future of big oil in the United States – the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitting country.