King County is pressing for damages against the oil companies for the impacts of climate change. This is part of a broader wave of lawsuits alleging that fossil-fuel producers knew the risks of global warming, but discounted them.
Five major oil companies for years deliberatively sought to downplay and discredit scientific warnings about the risks of global warming, alleges a lawsuit filed Wednesday by King County.
The Superior Court lawsuit names BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell as defendants, and seeks financial compensation to help pay for the costs of coping with sea-level rise, extreme weather and other effects of climate change.
The lawsuit faults the oil companies for intentionally producing and marketing massive quantities of fossil fuels that they know will exacerbate global warming, and alleges that this conduct amounts to “a continuing trespass onto county property.”
“We must hold these companies accountable as we marshal our resources to protect and preserve what makes this region great,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement.
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As of earlier this week, nine other cities and counties have sued fossil-fuel companies over climate change, according to InsideClimate News. That news service, along with the Los Angeles Times, in 2015 published articles detailing how Exxon’s researchers, decades ago, understood the science and risks of climate change driven by fossil-fuel combustion — reporting that helped set the stage for the current crop of lawsuits.
King County enlisted the Seattle-based law firm of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro to press the county’s lawsuit against the oil companies. That firm helped to wage the 1990s case against tobacco companies that led to a $206 billion settlement that reshaped the industry’s legal landscape.
Proponents of the new lawsuits say that, if successful, they could impose major new costs on the fossil-fuel industry.
The Seattle Times reached out to the five oil companies named as defendants Wednesday afternoon for comment but as of early evening, they had not responded.
The Manufacturers Accountability Project — an offshoot of the National Association of Manufacturers — released a statement denouncing the lawsuit.
“Lawsuits targeting manufacturers do nothing to address climate change, but will do plenty to line the pockets of plaintiffs’ attorneys — and in this case, the very same attorneys behind countless other public nuisance lawsuits throughout the country,” said Lindsey de la Torre, the project’s executive director.
Elsewhere, Exxon has mounted an aggressive strategy to counter climate-change lawsuits.
Bloomberg in February reported that Exxon targeted at least 30 people and organizations with lawsuits, threats of lawsuits or demands for sworn depositions.
“The company claims the lawyers, public officials and environmental activists are ‘conspiring’ against it in a coordinated legal and public relations campaign,” Bloomberg reported.
The court battles over climate change come amid a political divide in the United States over how government should respond.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly brushed off the threats posed by climate change, and announced that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord that seeks to limit global temperature warming. Meanwhile, he has sought to ramp up U.S. coal, natural gas and oil production.
In Washington state, many politicians have embraced the science of climate change and sought to reduce fossil-fuel consumption.
Constantine calls the science “undisputable.”
The King County lawsuit lists county damages that will result from climate change. They include landscaping costs due to drought, as well as salmon protection, flood control, bridge work to keep the structures safe due to increased stream flows and road repair for climate change-linked damage.