Hurricane Irene devastated Baltimore and the city knows more climate damages are aheadBaltimore, devastated by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, understands the costs of climate damages will skyrocket and wants the oil industry to pay for them. Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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By Jennifer Dorroh

Baltimore became the second East Coast city to file a climate liability lawsuit against fossil fuel companies. Its suit, announced Friday, becomes the 12th suit filed across the country aiming to hold the industry accountable for flooding and other harms caused by climate change.

The mayor and city council of Baltimore filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City that ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and 23 other fossil fuel producers and distributors violated Maryland laws, including its consumer protection law.

“These oil and gas companies knew for decades that their products would harm communities like ours, and we’re going to hold them accountable,” Baltimore City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said. “Baltimore’s residents, workers, and businesses shouldn’t have to pay for the damage knowingly caused by these companies.”

Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland and the fifth-largest on the East Coast, is already experiencing the effects of sea level rise and extreme weather driven by climate change. The city absorbed a 7 ½-foot storm surge from Hurricane Isabel in 2003, causing a devastating flood, and had Superstorm Sandy’s track changed slightly, a 20-foot storm surge could have inundated the city in 2012. The city’s Inner Harbor, a tourist hub and a key economic driver for Baltimore, faces frequent flooding even without storms of that size. Nearby Ellicott City, 12 miles to the west, has been devastated by flash flooding twice in the last three years, with 1,000-year floods striking that community after extreme downpours in 2016 and earlier this year.

Baltimore needs to upgrade infrastructure to be ready for future flooding, although city officials are not yet certain what that will cost. “The City is in the final stages of its latest Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project, which be out for public comment in August and will have more details about the kinds of projects that Baltimore will have to undertake to address rising seas and other consequences of climate change,” Suzanne Sangree, chief of the Baltimore City Law Department’s public safety practice group, wrote in an email.

“All cities are behind in this kind of preparation, in large part because the fossil fuel industry has been burying information and preventing meaningful regulation and preparation,” Sangree said.

The city filed its suit in state court, where most legal experts say it has a better chance for success. New York City, the first East Coast city to sue the oil industry for climate damages, had its case dismissed by a federal judge on Thursday. San Francisco and Oakland also had their cases thrown out of U.S. District Court. All are expected to appeal those decisions, but have not yet done so.

Those roadblocks have not deterred other communities from joining the wave of suits, however. Rhode Island recently became the first state to file a suit. And now Baltimore joins the list of cities that believe the industry should pay for the damages it says have been overwhelmingly driven by its products.

“Defendants have known for nearly 50 years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products has a significant impact on the Earth’s climate and sea levels,” the complaint said.

“For the past three decades, the fossil fuel industry has spent billions of dollars to deceive, delay, distract, and attack those who try to hold them accountable for their role in causing climate change,” Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said in a statement. “We expect more of the same from them here, but we will not be deterred from our responsibility to protect Baltimore and those of us who call it home.”

As solicitor, Davis will represent the city, with assistance from Sher Edling LLP, the firm also representing several other communities that have filed liability suits. The firm will serve as co-counsel and will receive no city funds, Davis said.