New York City sues fossil fuel companies for causing global warming while promising to divest

It could cost the city up to $20bn to become 'resilient' enough to withstand climate change damage

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Thursday 11 January 2018 00:28
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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is suing several oil and gas companies as well divesting the city's pension fund from fossil fuels.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is suing several oil and gas companies as well divesting the city's pension fund from fossil fuels.

New York City officials have announced the city is hitting out against the fossil fuel industry in two ways: a lawsuit against a number of large oil and gas companies and a promise to divest city’s funds from the industry.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will be seeking billions in the lawsuit to recoup money spent by the city for resiliency efforts related to climate change.

The Mayor’s Office said in a statement that the cost of the so-called “resiliency” programme which includes improvements to aging “physical infrastructure, like coastal protections, upgraded water and sewer infrastructure, and heat mitigation, but also public health campaigns, for example to help protect residents from the effects of extreme heat” could cost the city upwards of $20bn in the near future.

City residents have repeatedly called for improvements to the subway system as well.

"As climate change continues to worsen, it's up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient,” said Mr De Blasio.

The defendants in the city's federal lawsuit are BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell who, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists account for eight per cent of global sea level rise - a pressing issue for the island of Manhattan.

A BP spokesman declined comment. A Shell spokesman said climate change is a complex issue that should not be addressed by the courts. The other three did not immediately comment.

Some of the oil companies being sued by New York City over claims they contributed to global warming have disputed the allegation.

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"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions," said Exxon Mobil's Scott Silvestri. "Lawsuits of this kind — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that."

Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall said the lawsuit had not merit and that the litigation will do nothing to address climate change. Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, said the courts are not the venue to address climate change.

New York's lawsuit, filed in federal court follows similar litigation filed by San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Cruz, California.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court, followed the city's announcement that it plans to divest its pension funds from fossil fuel companies to the tune of $5bn.

The total investments in the pension fund is currently $189bn.

According to the Mayor’s office, it is the largest divestment away from fossil fuels committed to by any sub-national government in the US.

"Safeguarding the retirement of our city's police officers, teachers and firefighters is our top priority, and we believe that their financial future is linked to the sustainability of the planet,” city Comptroller Scott Stringer said in a statement.

The decision came on the heels of the state of New York deciding to divest its pension fund from fossil fuels as well. Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement last month.

Environmental activist Bill McKibben of 350.org called the actions by the city "one of a handful of the most important developments" in the past 30 years.

"The mightiest city on the planet has now sort of walked into a real fight with the richest and most irresponsible industry on the planet," he said.

Several environmental advocacy and green energy groups also had praise for the decision by the Big Apple.

However, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Association of Manufacturers Linda Kelly felt otherwise, saying the lawsuit is just a political maneuver on the part of Mr De Blasio.

"Ironically, this attack on energy manufacturers comes at a time that New Yorkers have depended on natural gas and heating oil to carry them through the recent extreme cold," she told the Associated Press.

Ms Kelly said: "The mayor's announcement may raise his profile, but it will do nothing to address climate change and will ultimately fail."

Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy and chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists argued in a statement that “for decades, fossil fuel companies have spent millions to deceive the public about the harms of their products and block policies that could have limited the impacts that communities in New York City, California, and across the world are facing.”

“Taxpayers and impacted communities are right to demand that major fossil fuel companies...pay their fair share," Mr Frumhoff said.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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