County slaps 37 fossil fuel firms with emissions lawsuit

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San Mateo County on Monday filed a lawsuit against dozens of fossil fuel companies, alleging they are complicit in issues leading to sea level rise.

The lawsuit in Superior Court in San Mateo argues that the 37 oil, coal and gas firms are responsible for roughly 20 percent of industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1965 and 2010, adding that they have known of the consequences since as early as 1968. Among the defendants are Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and Citgo.

“Defendants have known for nearly 50 years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products has a significant impact on the Earth’s climate and sea levels,” the lawsuit states. “With that knowledge, defendants took steps to protect their own assets from these threats through immense internal investment in research, infrastructure improvements, and plans to exploit new opportunities in a warming world.”

The county is pursuing “punitive and exemplary damages” of an amount to be determined in court.

“Defendants’ conduct was so vile, base, and contemptible that it would be looked down upon and despised by reasonable people, justifying an award of punitive and exemplary damages in an amount subject to proof at trial, and justifying equitable disgorgement of all profits defendants obtained through their unlawful and outrageous conduct,” the lawsuit states.

The county alleges costs to its communities from the fuels’ effects already exceed $40 million — upward of $1 billion for parcels at risk to near-term flooding and $39.1 billion or more for assets exposed to long-term flooding and erosion. The county, according to a 2009 Pacific Institute Report, faces more risk to population and property than any other county in the state, with more than 100,000 people living in areas threatened by 3 feet of sea level rise in the coming decades.

Marin County and the city of Imperial Beach near San Diego filed similar lawsuits Monday.

“With this legal action, the county … and our partners … are standing up for our residents and businesses to hold these companies accountable for their emissions and lay blame where it truly belongs,” county board President Don Horsley said in a news release. “The damage they’ve caused and continue to cause is unacceptable. But the fact that they’d prioritize their bottom line over the health and security of the public — including children — in the face of hard science is unconscionable.”

Supervisor Dave Pine said information compiled by the county since its launch of an Office of Sustainability in 2014 backs up the rationale for the lawsuit. He and Horsley equate the complaint with litigation against tobacco companies for “failing to warn about the harmful nature of their products.”

“Unlike these fossil fuel companies, we are not hiding the hard truths about climate change, and its potentially catastrophic consequences,” Pine said.

The lawsuit can be viewed in full here.



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