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The Courts Science

Ask Slashdot: Can a City Really Sue an Oil Company For Climate Change? (wired.com) 301

An anonymous reader writes: The city of Richmond, California, is suing Chevron, its largest employer and its largest public-safety scourge. But while industrial accidents like refinery fires are commonplace in the low-lying industrial town, that's not what this lawsuit is about. Richmond and six other California cities are suing oil companies for contributing to the changing climate, which threatens to inundate their shorelines. "In an era of federal deregulation and rising seas, these lawsuits feel increasingly urgent," writes deputy editor Adam Rogers. "The question is whether the courts will even see them as plausible."

The lawsuits face two big legal hurdles: getting scientific proof that climate change (and specific companies causing climate change) are to blame for the cities' woes, along with overcoming oil companies' contention that cities can't sue them at all, since at the federal level, they're beholden to the Clean Air Act. But the urban plaintiffs have a plan for that. They are not asking for new regulations or bans; they're asking for reparations for a problem they say oil companies willfully hid from them. "Oil and gas, like cigarettes, are products. The companies that sell them are liable for the damages they cause," says Sharon Eubanks, an attorney at Bordas & Bordas who was lead counsel in the Justice Department's RICO case against the Philip Morris tobacco company. "They have misled the public about the product's dangers."

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Ask Slashdot: Can a City Really Sue an Oil Company For Climate Change?

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  • by jfdavis668 ( 1414919 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @12:01PM (#56683280)
    As long as the people of the city drive cars and burn various fuel oils, it's their fault, too.
    • Also, the damages caused by fossil fuels must be weighed against the benefits. How much lives have been saved by the availability of abundant fuel? And what about the fact that thanks to fossil fuels, the air is actually cleaner than it was in the age of coal? Much, much cleaner.
      • And what about the fact that thanks to fossil fuels, the air is actually cleaner than it was in the age of coal? Much, much cleaner.

        LOL

        You know cancer rates doubled in the industrial revolution due to use of coal, right? Spreading all that radioactive material around?

        But fossil fuels have probably doomed humanity already, due to carbon overload. The system can't sink the carbon fast enough and we appear to already be seeing runaway effects.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by ColdWetDog ( 752185 )

          Cancer rates may have doubled [citation needed] but life expectancies have as well. Complex problems. Make one thing better, make another worse.

          That is, until you really break things.

          Murphy was an optimist.

        • Yeah, I meant "oil & gas" instead of fossil fuels. That's what you get for editing your post and not reading it back before submitting...
      • or don't believe in it then you won't seek alternatives. It's the age old question of "Who killed the electric car?".
      • by mspohr ( 589790 )

        Yes, it's good to see all of those coal burning cars off the road and in the junkyard.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jonsmirl ( 114798 )

      The cities have already lost this simply because their citizen continue to burn fuel. If you are going to make a case for this the very first thing the cities should do is ban all burning of hydrocarbons within their city limits. If they don't do that then they are just as guilty as anyone else.

      Of course juries like to stick it to companies whether they are guilty or not. And then that results in decades of appeals to more sensible forums.

      • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

        That's like saying a smoker cannot sue the cigarette company as long as they continue to smoke.

        • Smoker is claiming he has been tricked into physical addiction, good luck claiming physical addiction to fossil fuels.

          • by Ichijo ( 607641 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @03:25PM (#56684512) Journal

            Smoker is claiming he has been tricked into physical addiction, good luck claiming physical addiction to fossil fuels.

            Because you can quit fossil fuels anytime you want, right?

            We've allowed our rail lines to languish, gutted our cities with parking craters, and rebuilt them around the automobile such that driving is now the only feasible way of getting around American cities. Would we have done anything different if the oil companies hadn't lied and suppressed evidence about the environmental harm of burning fossil fuels? I think this is the real test of liability.

            • If this lawsuit is going to succeed you will need to successfully demonstrate that you have been deceived into using a product that if you had known the full story on you would not have used. For example tobacco users were deceived into smoking because they were told it was harmless to their heath, if they had been provided with full information on the dangers of tobacco they would never have smoked. Plus smoking is a physical addiction and thus they were unable to stop smoking during the tobacco trials.

              Th

    • it's about the oil companies running a decades long campaign to hide the effects of fossil fuels on the environment, often to prevent research into alternative and cleaner fuel sources.
    • how come you are not modded up fully? Seriously, you have hit the bullseye. Oil companies have pumped it out, but the vast majority of the CO2 is not from the pumping, but from the burning for cars, electricity, heat, etc. As such, they should chase car makers and utilities first before going after oil companies.
      • by mspohr ( 589790 )

        Yes, you're right. Guns don't kill people; people kill people.
        Also, drug sellers aren't killing people, it's the users that are killing themselves.

        • by BlueStrat ( 756137 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @05:39PM (#56685186)

          Yes, you're right. Guns don't kill people; people kill people.
          Also, drug sellers aren't killing people, it's the users that are killing themselves.

          Although you post in sarcasm, you are precisely correct on both points.

          Guns in civilian hands in the US have been around since there was a US, the relatively recent problems are societal. Although, gun homicides in general in the US are down 50% over the last 25 years according to official government data despite a sharp uptick in firearm sales.

          The War On (some) Drugs has been an abject failure and was originally initiated to oppress racial minorities. Education and treatment rather than tossing users in prison would quickly cause drug dealers and the cartels that supply them to find themselves without sufficient customers to make it a worthwhile endeavor.

          Strat

    • by mspohr ( 589790 )

      Until recently, our great "free enterprise" system (heavily subsidized fossil fuels and corrupt politicians) didn't give people an alternative to burning fossil fuels in an internal combustion engine. That is starting to change although electric cars are still expensive and hard to get.

    • by Namarrgon ( 105036 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @07:24PM (#56685650) Homepage

      Just like cigarettes. The customers were assured that the product had minimal downsides, so they adopted it enthusiastically, to the point where they became dependent on it. But they may well have made different choices if they'd known the full truth.

      There are alternatives to fossil fuels. If the public hadn't been deliberately mislead by the industry, and if the full costs of burning fossil fuels (health as well as environmental) hadn't been systematically minimised and swept under the rug, then we could have better developed those alternatives much sooner, starting 50 years ago.

      You can't claim the oil companies are blameless when they have been caught red-handed burying and buying unfavourable science, hiding the truth about their own product while spending hundreds of millions to trash the alternatives. We need lawsuits like these to establish how much of the blame falls on their shoulders. Not to mention the discovery phases should be very interesting..

    • Exactly What I was thinking. I'm almost wanting this company to just go, yeah ok, give us a settlement number, we'll pay it the moment no oil or oil product is in use anywhere in your city so that no harm is being caused any longer.
  • David vs. Goliah (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DaMattster ( 977781 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @12:07PM (#56683324)
    And David doesn't win. The oil companies have revenue that is larger than the GDP of some countries. They have infinitely more legal power as well. I doubt this will go anywhere and the only folks that suffer are the tax payers of Richmond, CA. Their tax dollars are going to get wasted on a folley.
    • That's not the point though. In this case "David" is not right and does not deserve to win. You can hardly blame the oil companies for causing climate change when it is your use of their oil products which causes the harm. The oil companies are not the ones burning all the oil and producing the CO2, we are! Nobody is forcing anyone to burn oil people choose to do so either because there is no alternative, the alternative is too expensive or because they are unwilling to reduce their standard of living. We a
    • And David doesn't win. The oil companies have revenue that is larger than the GDP of some countries. They have infinitely more legal power as well. I doubt this will go anywhere and the only folks that suffer are the tax payers of Richmond, CA. Their tax dollars are going to get wasted on a folley.

      David vs Goliath is hardly meaningful in this legal battle, and I can't find myself cheering for the underdog. Poor over powered David here is fighting a legal battle against someone who did everything they were asked of. Oil production is nothing in the grand scheme of climate change. Nothing at all compared to burning it.

      So I wonder, did Levar Stoney the honourable mayor walk to work this morning? Or did he drive a big American gas guzzler?

    • Half of all profits go to taxes. So your government has plenty of reasons to want to continue with the status quo.
  • We all know how the tobacco farmers were made to pay for growing their toxic product, and driven into bankruptcy,

  • Stupid (Score:4, Insightful)

    by religionofpeas ( 4511805 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @12:16PM (#56683392)

    The problem is people buying the oil and burning it. Don't go blame the company selling it to you.

    • agree about that part. However, the oil companies that KNEW about the climate change issue and then tried to cover it up, should be held responsible. Was chevron involved? If not, then this case is already done.
      • However, the oil companies that KNEW about the climate change issue and then tried to cover it up,

        Politicians KNEW too, and did nothing. This is not a job for the courts, this is a job for policy makers.

      • However, the oil companies that KNEW

        Everyone knew. We've been researching this link since the 70s. You have switch to an electric car right, and get all of your power from solar? Or did you post this on your Macbook Pro milled from a solid chunk of aluminium smelted in a plant that uses 10x the electricity of an averaged sized oil refinery?

        That's the amazing thing about climate change. It's always someone else's fault.

      • There are no laws requiring the oil companies to provide you with a brochure explaining the the pros and cons of climate change every time you fill your gas tank up. Before you convict this company, make sure it is a real crime that you are accusing them of doing.

        Personally I am not a supporter of the tobacco lawsuits either. It was utter corruption to hand out over $10B in legal fees to the lawyers involved in those lawsuits. I drive by the $55M ocean front house of one of those lawyers on my way to work.

    • Re:Stupid (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Required Snark ( 1702878 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @04:09PM (#56684738)
      The Fossil Fuel Cartel has been attacking alternative energy solutions for decades. They are deeply involved in funding the climate change denial propaganda machine. They give vast sums of money to elected officials to buy legislation to keep their profits up no matter what the impact is on the environment.

      For nearly 100 years the oil business has received tax breaks [wikipedia.org] that are a de facto government subsidy.

      The oil depletion allowance has been subject of interest, because of the relationship of big oil with the US government, and because one method (percentage depletion) of claiming the allowance makes it possible to write off more than the whole capital cost of the asset.

      Big Oil follows the same playbook as Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and the gun lobby. Lie, fund propaganda and buy influence to avoid the real economic cost of dangerous products.

      The historical pattern has been that government at the local level, which bears the brunt of the economic cost, uses the civil court system to counter failed Federal policies. This happened with Big Tobacco, and is now occurring with Big Pharma over the opioid epidemic. Now it may be the Fossil Fuel industries turn.

      Your position is Libertarian bullshit. Consumers have no real choice against powerful entrenched special interests. The playing field is not level and claiming otherwise is just propaganda. Stop lying.

      • So tax them. It is the lawsuit that is ridiculous. Just like the tobacco lawsuits were totally corrupt. $10B to the lawyers. If we had simply taxed the tobacco companies that $10B would be in the US Treasury. Pass a $5/barrel refining tax on the refinery inside the city limits.

        So get rid of this silly lawsuit and pass a city wide $5 a gallon gas tax. The city can do that tomorrow, no need to mess with a decade long lawsuit and billions in legal fees. If a gas tax doesn't work pass a $1000/car vehicle tax on

    • The problem is that the government certifies it safe by endorsing it as being a legal product to sell and collecting huge gobs of taxes from it. As with cigarettes, only the government should be liable if it isn't actually safe for consumers.
  • Supply and demand (Score:5, Insightful)

    by markdavis ( 642305 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @12:21PM (#56683438)

    Suing a company for providing what customers want and need? It would be different if they were NOT giving what people wanted or were misleading their customers or they were directly damaging the environment or workers during/in production. Suing for climate change really makes little sense. This is a regulatory issue. It would be like suing car makers because cars create traffic jams, suing cattle ranchers because cows emit methane, suing paving companies because people are killed on roads more than when not on roads, or suing salt miners because salt is used a lot in winter climate areas and can contaminate the surrounding soil.

    If you want to address climate change, then first and foremost, create innovative and competitive alternatives. Find ways to minimize the impact of existing systems. Find ways to reduce demand through efficiency. Educate people and consumers. And down the list, use sensible economic incentives to stimulate the above.

    • Suing for climate change really makes little sense.

      Actually, it makes perfect sense - "You've got money, we want some of it..."

      Big problem is that if the city wins, it'll lose its largest employer. Which is generally bad news for cities....

      • Suing for climate change really makes little sense.

        Actually, it makes perfect sense - "You've got money, we want some of it..."

        Actually I read it as "Your product is damaging the environment, and consequently our city. We want you to pay for it."

        • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 )

          Like others, I read it as: our residents are using your product to harm the environment, and we want you, not them, to pay for it.

          • It almost sounds like all those lawsuits against various torrent sites when you think of it.

          • Like others, I read it as: our residents are using your product to harm the environment, and we want you, not them, to pay for it.

            Believe me, the residents will pay for it. The city just wants oil companies to help.

  • Of course a city can sue an oil company for climate change. You can sue anybody for anything.

    But will they succeed? Well, that's up to the courts.

  • Yes, and more (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @12:37PM (#56683538) Journal

    Yes, a city can sue an oil company for damages because they've already done it.

    Also, as soon as the PLCAA is overturned (that's the 2005 law that makes firearms manufacturers the only industry that is exempt from civil lawsuits when their products harm people), you will see an overwhelming avalanche of lawsuits that will flip the entire gun control discussion in the US. Making corporations accountable for the external costs of what they do will be the legal trend of the coming decades. They've been getting a free ride long enough.

    • Then we should also sue the cities for allowing cars on their roads.

      • Then we should also sue the cities for allowing cars on their roads.

        You are really going to have to primarily sue the federal government and the auto manufacturers for that. The interstate highway system, the streetcar conspiracy... the nation was basically forced to accept the dominance of the automobile.

        • Either way, the point is that policy makers on every level let the oil companies produce the oil and let them sell it to consumers, knowing it would lead to CO2 and climate change, at the very least since the first IPCC report in 1990.

          • Either way, the point is that policy makers on every level let the oil companies produce the oil and let them sell it to consumers, knowing it would lead to CO2 and climate change, at the very least since the first IPCC report in 1990.

            I'm OK with suing them too.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by reboot246 ( 623534 )
      Great, as long as we can sue city councils, state legislatures, and Congress for the damage they do. You see, government is far more dangerous to humans than any manufacturer of any product ever made. You just don't understand it.
      • Great, as long as we can sue city councils, state legislatures, and Congress for the damage they do.

        Actually you can. You can sue anybody for anything. Whether you succeed in court is another matter.

        You see, government is far more dangerous to humans than any manufacturer of any product ever made. You just don't understand it.

        I don't think you understand the alternatives to government. Without it, the strong make the rules. With it, at least the weak have a chance for protection.

      • Great, as long as we can sue city councils, state legislatures, and Congress for the damage they do.

        You can, of course. Familiarize yourself with civics and the Constitution. You will be surprised at what you learn.

        • by msk ( 6205 )

          Yes, one can sue, but to hold them truly accountable is much more difficult, in part because sovereign immunity is too much of a thing.

          Gun manufacturers are not the cause of gun violence. Suing them is as meaningful as suing car manufacturers over people who willfully drive into crowds, or any other tool maker whose products are used to harm.

          Holding members of law enforcement (and members of government who employ them) personally accountable for their misconduct is a better place to start.

          • Yes, one can sue, but to hold them truly accountable is much more difficult, in part because sovereign immunity is too much of a thing.

            GUn manufacturers do not have "sovereign immunity". In fact, "sovereign immunity" is not even a thing here in the US.

            Gun manufacturers are not the cause of gun violence. Suing them is as meaningful as suing car manufacturers over people who willfully drive into crowds, or any other tool maker whose products are used to harm.

            If a car manufacturer made a model whose sole purp

    • Gun ownership in America is here to stay. âoeFlipping the conversationâ wonâ(TM)t change a thing. Only universal confiscation of guns will eliminate gun violence, and you know as well as I do how impossible that would be.
      • Gun ownership in America is here to stay.

        Of course it is, but we can learn from places that also have gun ownership without the wholesale slaughter that is American Exceptionalism.

        Just make people and corporations accountable for what they do. That's all it will take to minimize the suicidal effects of modern interpretations of the Second Amendment.

      • Only universal confiscation of guns will eliminate gun violence, and you know as well as I do how impossible that would be.

        I saw what you did there. [wikipedia.org]

        Countries outside the USA have managed to balance gun ownership with far lower incidents of gun violence.

    • Anyone can sue anyone for anything. The relevant question is whether it will actually stick at the Supreme Court.
  • by marcle ( 1575627 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @12:54PM (#56683626)

    Money and power don't always win in court. See Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein for example.
    True, we're all complicit in climate change for using fossil fuels. But the allegation here is that Chevron actively lied and suppressed information about their product. That might be tough to defend.

    • But the allegation here is that Chevron actively lied and suppressed information about their product.

      Now that we have learned that they lied, and that burning oil actually produces CO2, the first step should be to ban sales of oil products. Allowing them to continue selling the bad stuff, while suing for damages is just a cheap money grab.

  • by that's-so-kash ( 1561847 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @01:10PM (#56683702)

    Nor can you sue spoon companies for being fat, nail companies for flat tires, or sadly, the public education system for allowing these people to graduate.

    • What kind of a silly response is that. The question was whether you could sue, not whether you could win. The answer is obviously yes, to this example and to every single one you listed. I could sue you for the stupidity of your post.

      You answered a question that wasn't asked.

  • They should sue cows. They produce more detrimental compounds on a larger scale.
    • Not really. Methane is a smaller contributor to greenhouse gas than CO2, and most of that methane is not from cows but from natural sources and industrial leaks.

    • They should sue cows. They produce more detrimental compounds on a larger scale.

      Not even remotely. Cows aren't the biggest contributor of their gas type. Their gas type isn't the biggest contributor to global warming, and above all their gas type actually doesn't stay resident in the atmosphere very long which is precisely why the world is more concerned about CO2 than Methane.

    • They should sue cows owners.

      ftfy

  • ... judging by the facts and stuff.

    A better question is one of standing.

    Product liability may or may not apply.

    • No, all plaintiffs benefited far far more from fossil fuel use than any possible downside. Longer life, healthier life, prosperity, amazing materials (metals, plastics, etc.)...all due to burning hydrocarbons.

      It's like suing the surgeon that saved your life because he left a scar. Fossil fuel use saved humanity.

      Now, I'll agree the stuff pollutes and we have better alternatives now that we should accelerate adoption, our sun puts out enough energy to power a thousands civilizations, only counting what hits

      • Stupidity is documenting, internally, far in the past, that your product is harmful.

        For reference, see tobacco.

        Cars also saved the world and yet that industry is liable for product deficiencies.

        You and I don't have a say in this matter.

        The courts will make the determination.

        • oh, people thought exhaust fumes and smokestack some were healthy in the past? pffft, no they knew it was pollution. we used the stuff anyway, because the good outweighs the bad. most here would not exist or would have died horrible painful death were it not for fossil fuel use.

  • Seriously, I would like to see those that have had their CC's stolen to be held accountable. Once a few of these CIOs are held accountable, then businesses will change very quickly and security will matter more than saving a few dollars.
  • by HiThere ( 15173 )

    In the US at least, nearly anybody can sue nearly anybody over nearly anything. This doesn't, of course, mean they can win. And I expect that Chevron has a lot more lawyers with a lot more talent and experience than does Richmond, CA.

    As to their grounds...sorry, I'm no lawyer. There are reasonable grounds, but whether there are reasonable legal grounds is a separate question. So is whether the reasonable grounds can be proven.

  • by Misagon ( 1135 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @02:53PM (#56684340)

    Why sue one individual oil company when the disaster is caused by an industry on a global scale? Wouldn't it be more suitable to sue an organisation such as OPEC?

    Why not go after the car industry as well for having actively decommissioning public transport in favour of cars in some areas?

    • Why not sue the citizens of its own city for actually burning oil and pumping the gas right out their tailpipes and into the atmosphere. Seems to make far more sense than a bunch of companies legally operating under their licensed permits.

      oooh oooh oooh. The government should sue itself twice. The first time for being lax on emissions regulations, and then the second time for being made up of stupid people. Stupid people with power contribute a lot to global warming.

  • by LetterRip ( 30937 ) on Sunday May 27, 2018 @03:16PM (#56684452)

    The argument is that the oil companies have knowingly spread false information about climate change - false information that they knew to be true based on their own internal research - resulting in delays in legislation.

    So their deception and the damaging results thereof are what the companies are being sued for.

    • The urban governments are suing because decades of mismanagement has made them bankrupt and now they want a new revenue stream.
  • Everyone is taught in high school that burning hydrocarbons produces carbon dioxide.
    The oil and gas industry has never tried to imply it doesn't.

    Without oil, we have no plastic. You can't make solar panels without oil either.

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