Washington D.C. experiences tidal flooding, heat waves and other climate impacts and is considering investigating Exxon for climate fraudFacing increasing tidal flooding, heat waves and other climate impacts, Washington D.C. may pursue a climate investigation of Exxon. Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
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By Karen Savage

The District of Columbia could be the next community in line to file a climate change-related lawsuit against oil giant ExxonMobil.

Washington D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine posted a link to a solicitation seeking outside legal counsel in support of an investigation and potential litigation against Exxon for potential fraud.

In the solicitation, which he posted on Twitter on Friday, Racine said that Exxon has known since the 1970s that its products contributed significantly to climate change, which would accelerate and harm the environment.

“However, despite this knowledge, in connection with selling gasoline to D.C. consumers and others, Exxon has failed to inform consumers about the effects of its fossil fuel products on climate change. Exxon has also engaged or funded efforts to mislead D.C. consumers and others on the impacts of climate change,” Racine said in the document, adding that Exxon’s conduct may have violated local law, including the Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which prohibits “deceptive and unconscionable” business practices.

The proposed legal work would be done on a contingency fee basis and the attorneys would not be compensated unless their work leads to a monetary award. If an award is granted, the contracted firm could be reimbursed up to $1 million. The D.C. attorney general’s office said it would retain sole authority in the direction of the investigation. Municipalities commonly hire outside counsel to assist with complex litigation.

Exxon is facing a mounting number of climate change-related lawsuits and investigations by attorneys general.  

The Rhode Island attorney general filed suit against the company, along with four other oil giants, last July for knowingly contributed to climate change and failing to adequately warn Rhode Island citizens about the risks posed by their products. New York filed suit in October after a lengthy investigation found the company had allegedly deceived investors for years by deliberately downplaying the climate risks to its business and long-term financial health.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is investigating whether Exxon deceived Massachusetts shareholders by failing to divulge potential climate change-related risks to their investments.

Exxon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Washington D.C. is already experiencing significant climate impacts, which are expected to worsen quickly. The city now experiences about 10 days per year with a heat index above 105 degrees, according to climate scientist Virginia Burkett, the chief scientist for the United States Geological Survey. That number is expected to triple by 2030, she told the Washingtonian.

“One recent analysis suggests that by the time millennials turn 50, nearly every summer day could have a heat index above 105. And nights are warming faster than days, which is a serious health concern,” said Burkett, a lead author of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third, Fourth, and Fifth Assessment Reports (2001, 2007, and 2014) and the IPCC Technical Paper on Water (2008), and of all three U.S. National Climate Assessments produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

“The elderly and people with medical conditions like asthma or seasonal allergies are more vulnerable to heat waves than others,” she said, adding that low-income residents—who often cannot afford air-conditioning—will be the hardest hit.

Flooding along the Potomac and Anacostia riverfronts has increased 300 percent since 1928 due to climate change-driven sea level rise. According to worst-case scenario projections, the melting of polar ice could cause sea levels to rise between 10 and 12 feet by 2100, inundating large swaths of the nation’s capital, including the U.S. Botanic Garden, the National World War II Memorial, as well as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport. The U.S. Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court would narrowly escape the rising seas.

At least a dozen communities around the country have also filed climate liability suits against various fossil fuel companies to seek compensation for similar climate impacts in addition to the states that have been investigating Exxon’s role. Those suits have not fared well so far in federal courts, with suits by New York City, San Francisco and Oakland dismissed by federal judges, but the others are seeking to be heard in state courts, where they believe they will have more success. If state attorneys general turn these investigations into lawsuits, they would certainly be filed in state courts.

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