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US cities and states sue oil companies over climate change

Editorial Staff

The city of New York has issued civil proceedings against five of the largest oil companies alleging that they are responsible for climate change and passing the resulting costs onto local governments. Others are joining in with California being the latest to sign up.

New York's action is against BO, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. It seeks multi-milliard damages and, in the case of Exxon, the three-year long investigation covers the period when PotUS Trump's on-off bestie Rex Tillerson was the company's CEO.

The whole thing is mixed up with a criminal investigation by the Attorney's General of New York and Massachusetts which, in January this year, made it known that they were looking at ExxonMobil to decide whether the company had misled both the public and shareholders about, amongst other things, the effect of climate change on the company's bottom line. Ironically, New York City's own investments have, for many years, included "big oil."

Rhode Island re-started the chain-reaction when its Attorney General, Peter F Kilmartin, issued proceedings against 14 oil companies on 2nd July this year.

In October, New York started its own action based on Securities Fraud. That's because an earlier action, alleging simply contribution to climate change, was dismissed by a New York federal Judge on 19th July. That dismissed action is now pending appeal and it's that which other states are piling into with what are known in the USA as "amicus briefs" which are, in theory, filed by friends of the court but are, instead, used to demonstrate partisan support for one or other of the principle parties without actually joining the action as party. An added complexity is that, the day after New York's action was dismissed, the city of Baltimore issued its own proceedings. This now places oil companies under huge pressure as both civil and criminal proceedings are creating a fire-storm across the USA, all of them needing to be fought individually. For example, in June this year, a judge in California dismissed climate-change based civil action by two US cities, Oakland and San Francisco. The judicial reasons for dismissal were simple: the judges in all the cases said that climate change policies are a matter for federal government or the executive not the Courts: in short, by applying the doctrine of separation of powers, the courts are saying "not my job, gov."

That explains the criminal cases: securities fraud, if it can be proved, is a black-and-white legal area. It requires no new law whereas the civil actions are asking civil courts to make new law. Some would argue, with some merit, that in a common law system that's what courts are for.

There are several problems with the concept of the suits, including that even if "Big Oil" bears some responsibility, the genesis of the problem long predates oil and if the oil companies really want to put the cat amongst the pigeons, they should join all the coal mining and aerosol manufacturers, to name just two. And then join the wives of all the Attorney's Generals for using hairspray, their parents for using old-tech refrigerators and farmers whose animals fart.

Taxpayers in all the states should make their objections known to the civil suits which are going to cost them, the taxpayers, a huge amount of money. The criminal actions, however are a very different matter and will turn on their particular facts. There is no need, on the face of it, to prove causation in such an action, unless the oil companies want to try to prove that global warming is a myth. Oh, wait...

But that's an argument for another day.

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