Santa Cruz, Calif. filed the latest climate liability suit against fossil fuel companiesSanta Cruz, Calif., is battling sea level rise, but also other climate impacts including drought and extreme weather. Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

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By Lynn Zinser

The city and county of Santa Cruz joined the growing number of California communities seeking to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for the impacts of climate change, filing two new lawsuits in California Superior Court on Wednesday.

The latest suits, however, go further than previous ones, calling on restitution from the fossil fuel industry not just for the impacts of sea level rise, but also damages to the hydrologic cycle and its resulting increase in severe weather, drought and wildfires.

“With miles of coastlines and steep, forested mountains, Santa Cruz County is particularly vulnerable to impacts from climate change,” County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty said in a statement. “It’s time for Big Oil, who chose profit over people and the environment, to be held responsible. It’s time for oil companies to pay for the damage they’ve caused, rather than ask local residents to pick up all the costs associated with protecting us from sea level rise, increasing fires, and severe weather.”

The latest suits target 29 companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell, and are led by the same law firm, Sher Edling, leading the lawsuits filed this summer by San Mateo and Marin counties and the city of Imperial Beach. Like the previous suits, they are filed in state court and seek compensatory and punitive damages. They allege a list of claims, including public nuisance, liability for failure to warn, design defect, negligence and trespass.

“Defendants, major corporate members of the fossil fuel industry, have known for nearly a half century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel products create greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet and changes our climate,” the complaint reads. “They have known for decades that those impacts could be catastrophic and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would be irreversible. They have nevertheless engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats, discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt in the minds of customers, consumers, regulators, the media, journalists, teachers, and the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution.”

The companies petitioned to have the earlier suits, including two others filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, moved to federal court, a venue that in the past has been successful in fighting climate liability claims. The communities followed with petitions to keep them in state court. The lawsuits filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, using different co-counsel, assert only a public nuisance claim and are strongly directed toward staying in state court, using similar claims once successfully filed against the lead paint industry in the state.

Santa Cruz, which lies about 30 miles south of San Jose on the California coast, has a population of about 60,000, with 260,000 in the metro area. Officials say about $742 million worth of infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise alone in the next decade. But it goes further than simply quantifying the risks of rising seas and enumerates risk from the drought and wildfires that scientists have increasingly linked to global warming.

“These companies not only understood the consequences of fossil fuel use on global climate change, but their own scientists did much of the early, groundbreaking research, and issued detailed warnings decades ago,” Santa Cruz Mayor David Terrazas said in a statement. “The fact that they later worked hard to discredit the science is extremely troubling, and may well have delayed actions that could have prevented serious, global impacts. This lawsuit raises serious issues and deserves a full public discussion.”