By Dana Drugmand
Richmond, Calif., became the latest community on Monday to file suit against 29 fossil fuel companies, seeking monetary damages to pay for costs of adapting to climate change. It is the latest in a wave of liability lawsuits attempting to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its role in both causing climate change and misleading the public for decades on the seriousness of the risk.
Richmond is home to a Chevron oil refinery that processes 250,000 barrels of crude oil daily and is the city’s largest employer. Chevron is the lead defendant named in the complaint. “As we have said previously, such lawsuits will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” Chevron said in a statement. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement.”
The complaint mirrors one filed last month by the city and county of Santa Cruz, citing impacts from sea level rise as well as other extreme weather events such as droughts, heatwaves and extreme precipitation. Marin and San Mateo counties and the city of Imperial Beach filed similar complaints, but those focused exclusively on sea level rise and targeted more companies. All of these suits, including Richmond’s, allege public and private nuisance, trespass, negligence, negligence for failure to warn, strict liability for failure to warn, and strict liability for design defect. Sher Edling, the firm leading the other communities’ suits, is also providing outside counsel to Richmond.
Richmond is now the ninth community overall, and the eighth in California, to take the fossil fuel industry to court. The city’s lawsuit comes on the heels of New York City’s announcement that it would be suing five of the largest oil companies, in addition to divesting $5 billion of its pension holdings in fossil fuel stock. Richmond’s Bay Area neighbors Oakland and San Francisco filed their own liability lawsuits last September.
Like other Bay Area communities, Richmond is particularly vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise. The city is located on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.
“With 32 miles of shoreline, more than any other city on San Francisco Bay, Richmond is at extreme risk from sea level rise,” Mayor Tom Butt said in a statement. “We have two rail lines, 3,000 acres of public waterfront parks, vulnerable neighborhoods, two wastewater treatment plants, and a refinery, all subject to inundation. Sea level rise is already affecting our long-term planning and will cost our community far more than any foreseeable resources we have to mitigate it.”
Richmond is one of the poorest communities in the Bay Area, giving it few resources to respond to climate impacts. According to the complaint, the city “has already spent significant funds to study, mitigate, and adapt to the effects of global warming.”
Now the city is looking to shift the burden of these expenses from its taxpayers to the companies who produce and profit from fossil fuels, which have been shown by scientists to be the overwhelming driver of climate change.
“The fossil fuel companies need to be part of the solution, rather than making it worse,” said Mayor Butt. “After being warned by their own experts of the potential damage, the fossil fuel industry could have taken steps to transition to a lower carbon future, but they didn’t. Instead they continue to spend billions fighting public policies intended to reduce GHGs, even in some cases, while their own assets are endangered by rising seas.”