Seattle and King County are no strangers to climate protestsThe latest climate liability suit against Big Oil comes from Seattle's home, King County, Wash. Photo credit: David Ryder/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

King County, Wash., which encompasses the metropolitan area of Seattle, filed a lawsuit against five major oil companies on Wednesday, joining a growing list of cities and counties seeking to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the impacts of climate change.

The new lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, brings claims of public nuisance and trespass against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell. Like other climate liability suits, it alleges the companies long ago knew about the danger of burning fossil fuels and engaged in a deliberate campaign to mislead the public about the risk. “Defendants stole a page from the Big Tobacco playbook and sponsored communications campaigns…to deny and discredit the mainstream scientific consensus on global warming,” the complaint asserts.

Like many communities across the country, King County experiences regular flooding tied to climate change. “The rapidly rising sea level along the Pacific coast poses an imminent threat of storm surge flooding putting areas of King County at risk of inundation,” the complaint reads. “This threat to human safety and to public and private property is becoming more urgent every day as global warming reaches ever more dangerous levels.”

The county said that sea level is projected to rise by as much as 56 inches in the Puget Sound region by the end of the century, putting many areas now beyond the high tide line at risk.

The county is demanding the oil companies pay compensatory damages into an abatement fund to help cover the costs of protecting its residents and property. Attorneys for the county say those costs could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The county is working with the Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman, which is also involved in the climate liability suits filed by San Francisco and Oakland and also worked on cases that led to the historic settlement against the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

The industry was quick to denounce the suit. “Lawsuits targeting manufacturers do nothing to address climate change, but will do plenty to line the pockets of plaintiffs’ attorneys — and in this case, the very same attorneys behind countless other public nuisance lawsuits throughout the country,” a spokesperson for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) said in a statement. “As history has demonstrated, these lawsuits stand little chance in the courtroom.”

NAM has launched an initiative, called the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project, to oppose liability cases and state investigations into the conduct of fossil fuel companies.

County officials, however, say the oil companies must be held accountable.

“If critics simply focus on legal fees, I assume they are conceding that they knew their products were harmful and that the public should pay a very high price indeed,” said Alex Fryer, director of communications for the county’s Executive Office.

“The science is indisputable: climate change is impacting our region today, and it will only cause greater havoc and hardships in the future,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “The companies that profited the most from fossil fuels should help bear the costs of managing these disasters. Big Oil spent many decades disregarding and dismissing what is our most pressing generational challenge. We must hold these companies accountable as we marshal our resources to protect and preserve what makes this region great.”

King County has committed to reducing carbon pollution 80 percent by 2050, and to purchasing wind energy to power nearly all of its buildings and facilities. It also plans to convert its entire bus fleet to zero-emissions technology. In addition to reducing emissions, the county is preparing for climate change adaptation measures involving wastewater, transportation and infrastructure, emergency management, public health, water supply and salmon.