Local governments sue Big Oil

May 7, 2018
It was purely coincidental that David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, had to hold back when he was introduced at an Apr. 27 American Enterprise Institute discussion in Washington about municipal climate litigation, the fossil fuel industry, and the municipal bond market.

It was purely coincidental that David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, had to hold back when he was introduced at an Apr. 27 American Enterprise Institute discussion in Washington about municipal climate litigation, the fossil fuel industry, and the municipal bond market. It was necessary because he was co-counsel in such a lawsuit nearly 1,700 miles west that would not be announced for another hour.

Once the time had passed, Bookbinder explained that the City of Boulder, Colo., and Boulder and San Miguel counties had sued ExxonMobil Corp. and Calgary-based Suncor Energy Inc. in a Colorado state court for making products the plaintiffs said contribute to growing global climate change which strains communities’ efforts to meet their citizens’ needs.

It was the 10th such lawsuit against major oil companies. The first eight were filed in California, and New York City filed the ninth in January. Each charge that local governments have to increasingly spend more to withstand heat waves, floods, and other weather emergencies as consumers and businesses continue to buy and burn fossil fuels.

“These cases are not filed as reactions to what does or does not happen in Washington. It has nothing to do with the failure of Congress to act, or the Trump administration rolling back modest changes the Obama administration made. It has to do with smaller government units with responsibilities for specific services to their taxpayers,” said Bookbinder.

The local governments aren’t paying all the litigation costs, Bookbinder said. Outside firms are doing the work pro bono, he noted.

A second speaker—Andrew M. Grossman, a partner in Baker Hostetler LLC’s Washington office—was not certain this is always the case. “There’s a varying degree of municipal and government attorneys’ involvement in these lawsuits—from almost nothing to more of a hands-on role. Many of the attorneys who bring them aren’t charging, but they’re on contingency for a share of a possibly multibillion-dollar settlement. They get paid in that fashion,” he said.

Primarily publicity

Allegations that major oil companies knew about and suppressed information that burning fossil fuels contributed to climate change are a clear sign that the lawsuit is a publicity stunt, Grossman said.

“Activists are very eager to bring these suits. Some donors are happy to fund them. Politicians believe it’s in their interest to participate,” he said.

A lot of people find the idea irresistible that total and complete victory is just one lawsuit around the corner, Grossman said. “It’s obviously more appealing than going through a political process. That can require negotiations and compromises instead of simply calling someone a climate science denier,” Grossman said.