U.S. county sues ExxonMobil and others for climate damages
A county in Oregon named ExxonMobil and more than a dozen other defendants for $52 billion in climate damages related to a catastrophic 2021 heat wave.
(Multnomah County, Oregon) A U.S. county is suing a group of major oil and gas companies, refiners, and their trade associations for $52 billion in climate damages and future costs for adaptation. It’s the latest high-profile climate-related lawsuit, adding to the oil and gas industry’s mounting legal woes.
On June 22, Multnomah County, the state of Oregon’s most populous county and home to the city of Portland, announced a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, as well as several trade associations and consultants, including the American Petroleum Institute, Western States Petroleum Association, and McKinsey & Company.
The case makes a “public nuisance” argument — that the disastrous effects of climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is inflicting harm on the county and its people.
But unlike many other cases, the lawsuit positions a specific event at the heart of the case — the 2021 “heat dome,” a multiday catastrophic heat wave that saw temperatures exceed 46 degrees Celsius (116 Fahrenheit) in Portland, an all-time record. The heat was so intense that power cables melted. In the county alone, 69 people died, with hundreds more deaths recorded in other parts of the Pacific Northwest.
The county argues that this disaster would not have occurred if not for decades of fossil fuel emissions and the industry’s efforts to fight off regulation and accountability.
“With this action, we seek to hold these fossil fuel companies accountable for the damages that have arisen from one of the most deadly and destructive human-made weather disasters in American history,” Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said at a press conference. “People in our community were unprepared because these kind of weather events are simply without precedent.”
One study using attribution science – a fast-maturing field of climate science that is able to link specific disasters to climate change — found that the heat dome would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.
The county alleges that the companies named in the case knowingly and negligently created a public nuisance, and then defrauded the public by misrepresenting the climate science to cover up their role in contributing to the climate crisis.
“The heat dome was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the Defendants’ decision to sell as many fossil fuel products over the last six decades as they could and to lie to the County, the public, and the scientific community about the catastrophic harm that pollution from those products into the Earth’s and the County’s atmosphere would cause,” the lawsuit states.
Industry knowledge that burning fossil fuels could destabilize the climate dates back decades. The lawsuit points to a nearly sixty-year-old internal memo from the American Petroleum Institute, the largest and most powerful oil industry lobbying group. API’s president, Frank Ikard, stated internally to the group’s members in 1965 that “…there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequence of pollution, but time is running out.”
Reporting from Inside Climate News in 2015 revealed that ExxonMobil’s own scientists were warning internally about climate change in the 1970s, and sounded the alarm that unless action was taken, the world would see climate change play out. Exxon’s internal scientific predictions ultimately unfolded with remarkable accuracy.
Instead of informing the public, they “lied publicly and repeatedly about the harm their pollution was causing and the calamities it would cause,” the lawsuit states.
In addition, multiple congressional inquiries from last year uncovered thousands of documents that demonstrated that not only did oil and gas majors mislead the public about climate change, but that they continue to do so. Instead of outright climate denial, the oil majors today routinely overstate their investments in renewable energy to convince the public that they are taking action. In reality, the vast majority of their spending is dedicated to continued growth of fossil fuels.
In announcing its lawsuit, Multnomah County drew links to landmark cases against the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, where major corporations knew about the enormous public health costs from their products, but actively misled the public and sold them anyway. Both of those industries were forced into massive legal settlements.
“Multnomah County has joined the growing ranks of local governments that are standing up to Big Oil and fighting to make these polluters pay for the catastrophic damage they knowingly caused and lied about for decades,” Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, a Washington-based climate accountability NGO, said in a statement.
Multnomah County is seeking $50 million in past damages and $1.5 million in future damages. But it also wants a much larger $50 billion to help study, plan, and implement a massive climate mitigation and adaptation strategy.
While an enormous sum, that is still less than the $55 billion in profits that ExxonMobil reported in 2022 alone. Shell earned $42 billion and Chevron took in $36.5 billion. Many oil and gas companies saw profits balloon to record levels last year, inflated by soaring prices due to the war in Ukraine.
At a time of record industry profits, local governments are having to pay for rising costs related to the worsening effects of climate change.
“The county has spent millions of dollars, and is projected to spend millions more to prepare, prevent, mitigate, and acclimate to this monster in the sky. But it’s not enough,” Roger Worthington, a partner at Worthington & Caron, one of the firms representing the county, said at a press conference.
“With the costs we’re paying, the costs we’re going to have to pay, the money they are raking in hand over fist, the question is: who pays?” he said. “Here’s an idea. How about the people who caused it…how about sticking them with the bill? That’s what we do. That’s what this courthouse is for.”
Ryan Meyers, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the American Petroleum Institute, told Gas Outlook that “this ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless lawsuits against our industry is nothing more than a distraction from important issues and an enormous waste of taxpayer resources. Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system.”
In a statement, an ExxonMobil spokesperson said the company has not had a chance to review the lawsuit, but stated: “Suits like these continue to waste time, resources and do nothing to address climate change. This action has no impact on our intention to invest billions of dollars to leading the way in a thoughtful energy transition that takes the world to net zero carbon emissions.”
County officials say the oil industry needs to be held accountable for all the costs it is inflicting on the public.
“We all learned in Kindergarten that if you make a mess, you have to clean it up. It’s only fair that they pay to clean it up,” Vega Pederson said. “Today we say enough is enough. We are not looking for a payout. We are looking to be paid back.”