Don’t make us pay, Big Oil says

Law­suits by mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and states are an at­tempt to re­cast the de­bate

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSINESS - By Kelly Gil­blom BLOOMBERG NEWS

En­ergy ex­ec­u­tives ar­gue that their com­pa­nies shouldn’t be tar­geted in cli­mate change law­suits.

Lead­ers of the world’s largest oil com­pa­nies want ev­ery­one to know it won’t do any­one any good to make them pay for the dam­ages of cli­mate change.

Ex­ec­u­tives have been mak­ing the ar­gu­ment af­ter a se­ries of U.S. states and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties filed class ac­tion law­suits against Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mo­bil and others in re­cent months, ar­gu­ing it should be them that pays for the sea­walls, lev­ees and other in­fra­struc­ture cli­mate change is sure to re­quire.

“It’s sort of bizarre that the users of our prod­ucts say: ‘Well, ac­tu­ally, we didn’t want your prod­uct. So why did you force it on us?’ ” Shell CEO Ben van Beur­den told re­porters in Lon­don. “I don’t think also that in the end it will solve any­thing other than maybe re­dis­tribut­ing wealth to a cer­tain class of the econ­omy.”

“Let’s help bring the death knell to this in­dus­try that’s done so much harm.” New York City Mayor Bill de Bla­sio

The quick­en­ing pace of cli­mate change — and the po­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phes that could fol­low — are blamed on fos­sil fu­els, such as oil, gas and coal, that re­lease car­bon diox­ide when burned. Car­bon diox­ide is a lead­ing green­house gas that traps heat in the at­mos­phere and raises global tem­per­a­tures.

The law­suits brought against oil com­pa­nies aim to re­cast the de­bate around cli­mate change. Many of the world’s gov­ern­ments have ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for cut­ting car­bon diox­ide emis­sions from the en­ergy sys­tem by ded­i­cat­ing money to pub­lic funds to in­fra­struc­ture works and in­creas­ing reg­u­la­tion. The class ac­tions ar­gue it was oil com­pa­nies that forced so­ci­ety to dam­age the en­vi­ron­ment, so they solely carry the bur­den of fix­ing it.

“Like the to­bacco com­pa­nies that were suc­cess­fully sued decades ago, we’re also su­ing five of the biggest in­clud­ing Exxon Mo­bil, for ex­am­ple, who sys­tem­at­i­cally poi­soned the Earth, knew about it, covered it up, ex­plained it away, tried to hook peo­ple more and more on their prod­uct,” Bill de Bla­sio, mayor of New York City, said about the suits when they were filed. “Let’s help bring the death knell to this in­dus­try that’s done so much harm.”

The po­si­tion has in­curred a strong re­sponse from the com­pa­nies fac­ing the com­plaint, in­clud­ing calling into ques­tion whether it’s just a money grab from lawyers.

Bob Dud­ley, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Bri­tish oil ma­jor BP, said class ac­tions are “a busi­ness model in the United States” at the com­pany’s an­nual gen­eral meet­ing this year, and said they’re no help. In a state­ment last month, Chevron Corp. said the same at­tor­neys have been fil­ing suits across the coun­try.

A judge in Cal­i­for­nia dis­missed suits from Oak­land and San Francisco ar­gu­ing cli­mate change was too broad a topic for a sin­gle court to de­cide and that it should be left to leg­is­la­tors. He also ar­gued the world has pros­pered be­cause of fos­sil fu­els and it didn’t make sense to turn against the com­pa­nies that pro­vide prod­ucts in high de­mand.

The com­pa­nies named in the law­suit said they wel­comed the dis­missal and ex­pressed hope the logic would pre­vail across other ar­eas of the coun­try. But days later, the at­tor­ney gen­eral in Rhode Island filed an­other suit with the same set of al­le­ga­tions, say­ing it was part of his fidu­ciary re­spon­si­bil­ity to the state.

Shell’s Van Beur­den said the threat of ad­di­tional le­gal ac­tion has also put the com­pany off the idea of set­ting spe­cific cli­mate tar­gets and in­stead caused it to stick to broader “am­bi­tions.”

Bloomberg

Law­suits are aim­ing to get oil com­pa­nies like Exxon Mo­bil to pay for the costs of cli­mate change.

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