Pennsylvania County Joins List of Local Govts Suing Big Oil over Climate

The county of Bucks in Pennsylvania has taken oil and gas giants to court for allegedly not just ignoring but also playing to their advantage industry first-hand knowledge about global warming.

Named as defendants in the suit filed this week before the county’s Court of Common Pleas are BP PLC, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Exxon Mobil Corp., Phillips 66 Co., Shell PLC and industry group the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Industry reaction to the suit highlighted it has existed to meet energy needs and that local courtrooms have no power to decide national climate policy.

The county government is accusing the respondents of deliberate concealment of scientific information and marketing using false information for decades.

The suit, which adds to similar court cases initiated by local governments across the United States against Big Oil, is seeking payments for damages and relief measures, such as abatement, to remedy the impacts of the companies’ fossil fuel activity.

“In recent years, we have experienced unprecedented weather events here in Bucks County that have repeatedly put residents and first responders in harm’s way, damaged public and private property and placed undue strain on our infrastructure”, Chair of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners Diane Ellis-Marseglia said in a statement. “We’re already seeing the human and financial tolls of climate change beginning to mount, and if the oil companies’ own data is to be believed, the trend will continue”.

“This suit is our tool to recoup costs and fund public works projects like bolstering or replacing bridges, retrofitting county-owned buildings and commencing stormwater management projects, all of which will put us in the best possible position to weather what is certain to come”, Ellis-Marseglia added. 

A study published July 23, 2023, by advocacy group Center for Climate Integrity, Resilient Analytics and Scioto Analysis said Bucks needed to invest about $955 million in climate remedial measures, such as protecting infrastructure from rising sea levels, by 2040.

The suit says that since at least the 1950s the fossil fuel industry’s scientists “have consistently concluded that fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution that can have catastrophic consequences for the planet and its people”.

“The industry took these internal scientific findings seriously, investing heavily to protect its own assets and infrastructure from rising seas, stronger storms, and other climate change impacts.

“Rather than warn consumers and the public, fossil fuel companies and their surrogates mounted a disinformation campaign to discredit the scientific consensus on climate change, create doubt in the minds of consumers, the media, teachers, and the public about the climate change impacts of burning fossil fuels; and delay the energy economy’s transition to a lower-carbon future”.

API senior vice president and general counsel Ryan Meyers said in a statement to Rigzone, “The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint”.

“This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of taxpayer resources”, said the statement from the API, which represents all segments of the U.S. oil and gas industry.

“Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not a patchwork of counties and courts”.

Meanwhile British company Shell said, “The Shell Group’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades”.

“We agree that action is needed now on climate change, and we fully support the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future. As we supply vital energy the world needs today, we continue to reduce our emissions and help customers reduce theirs”, Shell added, in a statement emailed to Rigzone.

“Addressing climate change requires a collaborative, society-wide approach. We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress”.

Chevron counsel Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. similarly said, “Addressing climate change requires a coordinated international policy response, not meritless local litigation over lawful and essential energy production”.

“As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held in dismissing a similar New York City lawsuit, ‘such a sprawling case is simply beyond the limits of state law’”, Boutrous told Rigzone.

ConocoPhillips and Britain’s BP said they could not comment on pending litigation, in reply to Rigzone requests. Phillips 66 also declined to comment.

Before Bucks, similar cases against the oil and gas industry for alleged climate fraud or damages had been filed by several city, county and state governments. According to the Center for Climate Integrity, such cases had been filed in Annapolis and the counties of Anne Arundel and Baltimore in Maryland; Boulder and San Miguel in Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago City, Illinois; Connecticut; Delaware; District of Columbia; Honolulu and Maui County in Hawai’i; the Makah Indian Tribe; Massachusetts; Minnesota; Multnomah County, Oregon; Hoboken, New Jersey, and the state itself; New York City; Rhode Island; San Juan and several municipalities in Puerto Rico; the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe; Vermont; several cities and counties in California and the state itself.   

In Pennsylvania, Bucks is the first county government to sue Big Oil to account for adverse climate change, according to the Bucks government.

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