New York City is suing big oil companies over climate change.
The big [green] apple
New York City is suing Shell, ExxonMobil, and a handful of other oil companies over the threat that climate change poses in an attempt to shift economic responsibility to the companies that have done so much to hasten it along.
The suit, according to the Washington Post, alleges that the five largest publicly-traded oil companies “together produced 11 percent of all global-warming gases…[and] that the companies and the industry they are part of have known for some time about the consequences but sought to obscure them.”
New York is citing the expenses of protecting itself from rising sea levels and natural disasters that will likely drain the city’s resources, and suing for ‘compensatory damages.’
If the city wins, it’s possible that oil companies could be made to pay for the costs of building “sea walls, levees, dunes and other coastal armament,” as well as elevating buildings and parks along the coast (thanks to sea rise).
A handful of cities and municipalities have tried this kind of litigation before, but this is the first time a suit like this has been filed outside of California – and since it’s New York City, the oil companies are taking it seriously.
Curtis Smith, a spokesperson for Shell, claimed that climate change needs to be addressed through “sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers… not by the courts.”
Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall released a similar statement, claiming via email that the suit “will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change.”
And while we’re at it: ExxonMobil’s VP of public and government affairs, Suzanne McCarron, wrote on the company’s blog that lawsuits won’t do anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The problem, Curtis, Braden, and Suzanne, is that turning to government policy for change has proved difficult to achieve, given the intense lobbying power of oil companies (like Shell, Chevron, and ExxonMobil) and their influence on public policy. This leaves litigation as the only feasible option for cities and people most at risk. The more municipalities sue, the more likely it is that this movement will gain traction and inspire change in the actions of oil companies.
New York City is also divesting its pension funds from companies tied to fossil fuels, pulling out around $5 billion. According to the Guardian, the city’s total pension fund for city workers, teachers, and firefighters is worth around $189 billion. Its divestment from fossil fuels is a huge deal, with major economists predicting other US cities will follow New York’s lead. While the $5 billion divestment is an economic hit to fossil fuel companies, that isn’t divestment’s biggest threat – the larger problem for fuel companies is the use of divestment as a political and social statement. New York has a visible presence and powerful voice, and it’s setting an example; however, for changes to be truly meaningful, people and other cities will have to start reevaluating energy sourcing and consumption (and some urban communities are doing this, revolutionizing their energy grids with solar and blockchain technology).
Critics on the right are deeming the lawsuit an unnecessary politicization of natural disasters, and an unsustainable route to meaningful change. Critics on the left argue that, while divestment is important for raising awareness and spurring action, it doesn’t guide policy by itself.
The Trump administration wants to allow offshore drilling in all US coastal waters.
In the most widespread bipartisan agreement of the past year, people left and right, east and west, are rising up against Trump’s plan to allow offshore drilling in almost all US coastal waters. Trump’s plan is a reversal of former president Obama’s blocking of ~94% of coastal waters from drilling, which would now make ~90% of the outer-continental shelf available for leasing. (This is a terrible idea for many reasons, which I detailed a couple of weeks ago here.)
This proposal is only one cog in the current administration’s larger plan to roll back regulations for private industry – some other aspects include rescinding rules around offshore drilling, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, and, of course, pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
In a funny turn, Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, who’s been, for the most part, pretty close to Trump, came out against the decision and was almost immediately appeased by Ryan Zinke (head of the Department of the Interior), who removed the state’s coastline from the proposal.
Governors from both red and blue states have been voicing their opposition, claiming offshore drilling would endanger tourism, fishing, military installations, and state economies in general. This plan is not likely to pass without a lengthy fight in the courts from state representatives and environmental groups.
Ryan Zinke wants to remake the Department of the Interior.
Ryan Zinke just announced a plan to reorganize the Department of the Interior that would dramatically change how the federal government manages more than 500 million acres of land and water across the US.
His proposal is theoretically based on bioregionalism – a system of management that would be more directly rooted in natural boundaries, rather than in political boundaries like state lines. The intention is to unify Interior and make it more efficient: as the Washington Post points out, “a single stream with trout and salmon can fall under multiple agencies, one for each fish, another for a dam downstream and yet another to manage the water, and each generates reports that often conflict.”
The reorg would create thirteen regions grouped by watersheds and geographical basins. Some prominent Democrats from western states have endorsed the plan, but others, like Senator Marten Heinrich (D-NM), are skeptical, pointing to Zinke’s plan to cut $1.6 billion from Interior’s budget and eliminate around 4,000 jobs: “This looks more like a dismantling than a reorganization.”
While Zinke’s plan sounds like a great idea in some ways, let me point out a few serious concerns:
A reorganization of this magnitude would be a massive undertaking, requiring thousands of government workers to relocate to new areas of the country. It would also require authorization from Congress.
The proposal would eliminate the Navajo Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is concerning, especially after the recent shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, two culturally significant spaces, in the largest reversal of national monument protections in history.
Sharon Buccino, senior director for lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council, pointed out that most of Zinke’s actions thus far have been to create more opportunities for fossil fuels and eliminate policies that protect from climate change and pollution.
It’s been a rough year for California, environmentally – after an extended season of the worst fires the state has ever suffered, southern parts of the state are now dealing with flash floods and mudslides. Heavy rains last week drenched the areas that had recently been stripped by fires, soaking land where plants and vegetation would have previously absorbed at least some of the precipitation. The waterlogged hillsides then slid, uprooting trees and boulders, sweeping away houses, covering roads, and killing at least 20 people with many more still missing.
It’s MLK day!
The majority of people in danger of pollutants and toxic environments are either poor or people of color. Coincidence? Doubtful. Environmental racism is a pervasive reality in our country that communities of color have consistently fought. Check out some of the biggest environmental justice battles of the last year fought by communities of color, Native American tribes, and islanders here.
header image: "new york city," andrés nieto porras / flickr