Climate impacts like extreme downpours led Marin County to sue the fossil fuel industry over climate damagesClimate impacts like extreme downpours, which caused this mudslide in Sausalito, led Marin County, Calif., to sue fossil fuel companies for climate damages. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

Marin County, Calif., is working to rally opposition to a carbon tax proposal that would also grant legal immunity to fossil fuel companies facing climate liability lawsuits—just like the one Marin and more than a dozen other communities have filed to hold those companies accountable for the costs of climate damages.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on Tuesday opposing immunity for oil, coal and gas companies. The resolution also affirms that the Environmental Protection Agency should continue to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. The resolution is a response to the Climate Leadership Council’s carbon tax proposal—which is supported by fossil fuel companies—that would roll back EPA regulations on climate pollution and prohibit lawsuits seeking to hold the fossil fuel industry liable for the costs of climate impacts.

“Giving these companies immunity from legal liability would block our access to the courts,” Marin County Board of Supervisors President Kate Sears wrote in a letter to colleagues. “This resolution is an opportunity to raise awareness of the dangers lurking within apparently forward-thinking proposals for a price on carbon and dividend to taxpayers.

“It is also a chance to ask our federal and state legislative and executive leaders to strongly oppose any efforts to deprive local governments and the public of access to the courts, and any attempts to weaken EPA’s ability to protect the environment and the public’s health.”

Marin County leaders also signed on to a letter last year from several communities to California Sens. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris raising an alarm about the liability waiver proposal.

Marin County filed its  lawsuit against 37 fossil fuel producers in July 2017. It, along with simultaneous lawsuits filed by San Mateo County and the city of Imperial Beach, is awaiting hearings by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the suits should be heard in state or federal courts.

Other California communities are awaiting similar appeals, including San Francisco and Oakland whose suit against five large oil companies was dismissed by a federal judge last year, the city and county of Santa Cruz and the city of Richmond.

Recently, a federal judge ruled that a similar lawsuit filed by Baltimore should be heard in Maryland courts.

The lawsuits allege that fossil fuel producers funded campaigns to mislead the public about climate science while knowingly promoting a product that drives global warming. Communities are already experiencing the impacts, including sea level rise, increased extreme weather, heat, drought and wildfires. They face steep costs to protect residents, property and infrastructure. The communities bringing liability suits say the fossil fuel companies should be forced to help pay for those damages.

The companies are fighting the suits in court, but are also lobbying on Capitol Hill to support the carbon fee and dividend proposal that includes the immunity provision. The House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the plan and that provision was not mentioned. But the increased attention on the CLC’s plan prompted some of the communities that had already sued the fossil fuel industry to take a stand. Richmond Mayor Tom Butt is bringing a bringing a resolution  to the upcoming meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors that opposes stripping communities of their right to pursue climate liability through the courts. That resolution already has the support of several other cities—Baltimore, Boulder, Colo., and Santa Cruz—that are also suing fossil fuel companies.

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