Chicago Becomes the Latest City to Sue the Oil Industry over Climate Change

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CLIMATEWIRE | Chicago filed suit Tuesday against six oil companies and an influential industry ally, joining the ranks of local governments looking to hold fossil fuel producers financially accountable for the effects of climate change.

The lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court accuses the companies, their subsidiaries and industry trade association the American Petroleum Institute of waging a campaign to discredit climate science and mislead the public about the dangers of burning fossil fuels.

“While defendants have promoted and profited from their deceptive conduct, the city and its residents have spent and will continue to spend substantial sums to recover from the effects of climate change,” the lawsuit says, noting that Chicago is facing more frequent and intense storms, flooding, droughts and extreme heat.

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The lawsuit — which names BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Phillips 66, Shell and API as defendants — says climate effects are felt “throughout every part of the city and disproportionately in low-income communities.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson cited unprecedented poor air quality in 2023 and floods that inundated Chicago residents’ basements as some of the climate impacts the city must face.

“The consequences of this crisis are severe, as are the costs of surviving them,” Johnson said. “That is why we are seeking to hold these defendants accountable.”

Chicago’s climate liability lawsuit comes as more than two dozen other cities, counties and states have filed similar challenges against the oil industry, seeking compensation for dealing with the ravages of climate such as rising tides and frequent heat waves.

Oil companies, which could be on the hook for billions of dollars if the lawsuits are successful, have argued that climate change can’t be resolved by the courts.

“Addressing climate change requires a coordinated international policy response, not meritless local litigation over lawful and essential energy production,” said Theodore Boutrous of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, counsel for Chevron. He noted a federal court in 2021 had dismissed a similar New York City lawsuit, finding that “such a sprawling case is simply beyond the limits of state law.”

That case, however, was initially filed in federal court and eight federal appeals courts in the past year have found that the cases could be heard in state courts.

Phil Goldberg, special counsel to the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project, an initiative of the National Association of Manufacturers, which opposes the lawsuits, said it shares “Chicago’s desire to address the challenge of climate change, but this litigation is not the type of action that is going to lead to meaningful solutions.”

He said that Chicago’s case has no legal merit and that courts have cautioned that the judicial branch is not the appropriate place to decide climate policy.

“The challenge of our time is developing technologies and public policies so that the world can produce and use energy in ways that are sustainable for the planet,” Goldberg said. “It should not be figuring out how to creatively plead lawsuits that seek to monetize climate change, will raise the cost of energy on American families and businesses, and provide no solutions.”

The suit comes as the Supreme Court last year boosted a raft of similar cases by rejecting the oil industry’s effort to move the challenges from state to federal court. That order paved the way for lawsuits against the industry to advance in state courts from Maryland to Hawaii.

For years, industry lawyers have been working to move the climate liability cases to federal courts, where they believe the lawsuits are more likely to be blocked by the Clean Air Act.

Inside the lawsuit

Chicago’s lawsuit alleges 10 causes of action against the oil industry, including failure to warn the public about the climate effects of its products.

Alderman Matt Martin, who has pressed Chicago to file a climate liability lawsuit, accused the companies of having “knowingly deceived Chicago consumers in their endless pursuit of profits.”

He said the city is “enduring extreme heat and precipitation, flooding, sewage flows into Lake Michigan, damage to city infrastructure, and more” and that the city intends to shift the costs “back where they belong: on the companies whose deceptive conduct brought us the climate crisis.”

The suit accuses API of leading “front groups” such as the Global Climate Coalition “to promote climate disinformation and advocacy from a purportedly objective source.”

Ryan Meyers, general counsel at API, called the lawsuit part of an “ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers.”

He added that it is “nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of taxpayer resources. Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not a patchwork of city halls and courts.”

The city’s legal department is handling the case along with Sher Edling, the California-based law firm that represents many of the municipal climate liability cases.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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