Helheim Glacier melt, Greenland

San Francisco, Oakland sue major oil companies over rising seas

The cities of San Francisco and Oakland are suing some of the world’s largest oil companies over climate change, joining an emerging legal effort to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the damages wrought by rising seas.

The suits, filed separately in Superior Court in San Francisco and Alameda County and announced Wednesday, claim that a slate of oil, gas and coal producers not only caused the heat-trapping gases that drove sea level rise but knowingly did so, a challenge akin to litigation against big tobacco companies in the 1990s.

Both cities are asking the companies, which include Bay Area-based Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell and BP, to pay billions in compensation for past and future flooding, coastal erosion and property damage resulting from climate change.

“The bill has come due,” said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “It’s time for these companies to take responsibility.”

The lawsuits, filed Tuesday, come two months after the counties of Marin and San Mateo, as well as the San Diego County city of Imperial Beach, filed similar challenges amid a growing push to use the courts to go after individual corporations for their contribution to global warming.

Earlier legal attempts to tie specific companies to the problem have been scant and largely ineffective. But as scientific advancements make it increasingly possible to pinpoint the causes of climate change, and with the Trump administration sidelining the issue, law experts say both the number of suits against the fossil fuel industry and their chances of success are bound to grow.

“With the federal administration pulling back, it doesn’t surprise me that more people are turning to the courts,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law. “It’s possible that the courts will be more sympathetic to claims when there isn’t concurrent federal regulatory action moving forward.”

Representatives from the oil industry, including Chevron officials, said the legal action was not productive.

“Chevron welcomes serious attempts to address the issue of climate change, but these suits do not do that,” said company spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie in an email. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement and action.”

Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute trade group, said the oil and natural gas industry had already made climate change a priority and will “play a leading role in driving down U.S. greenhouse gas and other emissions.”

Like the challenges in Marin and San Mateo counties, the lawsuits in San Francisco and Oakland argue that the oil producers constitute a public nuisance.

The suits claim the extraction and development of fossil fuels prompted a significant increase in global warming, which melted ice sheets and heated sea water so that it expanded, raising ocean levels nearly eight inches in California over the past century. As much as 10 additional feet of sea level rise may occur by 2100, according to the suit.

“As a city surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco would be devastated,” Herrera said.

In the short term, San Francisco officials expect to pay $500 million to fortify the 3-mile seawall along the Embarcadero to prevent roads, homes and businesses from being submerged. Long-term upgrades are projected to cost $5 billion.

City officials also anticipate paying $350 million to safeguard the city’s sprawling sewer and storm-water system, much of which is housed near Ocean Beach, where shoreline erosion and lapping ocean water threaten to undermine underground treatment and pumping facilities. If the pipes and plants need to be moved, the costs will be even greater.

All told, about $10 billion of public property and as much as $39 billion of private property are at risk, according to the city.

In Oakland, officials are worried about high water at several points along the city’s bay shore, including Jack London Square and Oakland International Airport. Already, the city is planning major floodwall and dike projects to the tune of $56 million. A disproportionate number of people living in these low-lying areas, officials say, are lower-income, minority residents.

“The harm to our cities has commenced and will only get worse,” said Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker.

Both the San Francisco and Oakland lawsuits argue that the oil companies have known since at least the early 1980s that their business was causing this type of damage, yet sought to convince the public it wasn’t.

“Defendants stole a page from the Big Tobacco playbook and sponsored public relations campaigns, either directly or through the American Petroleum Institute or other groups, to deny and discredit the mainstream scientific consensus on global warming, downplay the risks of global warming and even to launch unfounded attacks on the integrity of leading climate scientists,” the San Francisco suit reads.

A similar case was filed by the Alaskan village of Kivalina in 2008. It targeted about two dozen energy companies for their purported role in causing flooding through greenhouse gas emissions, while claiming they conspired to distance themselves from the problem. A federal judge ruled that the public nuisance argument didn’t apply because government regulations, in this case the federal Clean Air Act, already existed and took precedent.

The cases in California, however, are proceeding in state court, where legal experts say judges are less inclined to dismiss lawsuits because of other laws on the books. At the state level, public nuisance cases have been more common and successful.

“It’s likely that the nuisance claims will be allowed to proceed,” said Hecht at UCLA. “The question is whether the courts will conclude that there is causation, and that the harm outweighed the benefits provided to the public.”

Follow us

We are here to bring the world of ecosocialism to life.

Like Us On Facebook

Facebook Pagelike Widget
What Might An Ecosocialist Society Look Like?
On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission