Bernie Sanders' climate plan includes possible criminal and civil liability for fossil fuel companies. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

By Dana Drugmand

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders released his plan for tackling the climate crisis on Thursday, and it includes perhaps the strongest call yet for holding fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change–-including pursuing criminal liability.

“Fossil fuel executives should be criminally prosecuted for the destruction they have knowingly caused,” Sanders said via Twitter

Sanders’ three-pronged, $16 trillion plan includes transforming the U.S. energy system to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, holding the fossil industry accountable for climate change and rebuilding the U.S. economy to ensure justice for frontline communities and a just transition for those currently employed by the fossil fuel industry.

Sanders said if elected president, he will ensure that the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission investigate fossil fuel companies and bring suits — both criminal and civil — for any wrongdoing, just as the federal government did with the tobacco industry. He said companies should pay for damages that they have knowingly caused.

“The fossil fuel industry has known since as early as the 1970’s that their products were contributing to climate change and that climate change is real, dangerous, and preventable. Yet, they kept going,” Sanders said in the plan, adding that once the fossil fuel industry knew the danger their products posed to the climate, they doubled down.

“Instead of working to find solutions to the coming crisis, the fossil fuel industry poured billions into funding climate denialism, hiring lobbyists to fight even the slightest government regulation and oversight, and contributing to politicians who would put the interests of fossil fuel executives over the safety and security of the planet,” he said.

“Fossil fuel corporations have fought to escape liability for the pollution and destruction caused by their greed,”  Sanders added. “They have evaded taxes, desecrated tribal lands, exploited workers and poisoned communities,.”

Sanders’ plan comes just one day after Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who also favored prosecuting polluters, dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination. Of the remaining Democratic candidates besides Sanders, only Tom Steyer and Kirsten Gillibrand have committed to directly holding fossil fuel companies accountable. Steyer indicated he would pursue criminal sanctions against the industry, while Gillibrand said she would levy an excise tax on fossil fuel production to make the industry pay for climate damage

“Bernie promises to go further than any other presidential candidate in history to end the fossil fuel industry’s greed, including by making the industry pay for its pollution and prosecuting it for the damage it has caused,” according to Sanders’ campaign website.

In addition to undertaking tobacco-style litigation against the fossil fuel industry, the plan includes imposing sanctions on corporations that “threaten national and global emissions reduction goals”; mandating that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission jointly develop a National Climate Risk Report requiring corporations to disclose their climate risks; ending fossil fuel subsidies and fossil fuel extraction on public lands; banning offshore drilling, fracking, and mountaintop removal coal mining; ending new fossil fuel infrastructure permits and fossil fuel imports/exports; and divesting federal pensions from fossil fuels.

Sanders’ plan also includes supporting state and regional efforts to determine climate vulnerabilities and undertaking actions “that remunerate devastated communities.” 

The current crop of climate liability lawsuits brought by municipalities against fossil fuel corporations are demanding monetary damages to help pay for climate impacts and adaptation projects. 

Under Sanders’ plan, the federal government would provide funding to help communities prepare for inevitable climate impacts, including a $40 billion Climate Justice Resiliency Fund. Block grants would be “issued to states, territories, tribes, municipalities, counties, localities, and nonprofit community organizations” for resiliency projects such as seawalls and community relocation, prioritizing communities most at-risk. Coastal communities that are highly vulnerable to sea level rise would receive $162 billion in funding for adaptation initiatives. 

A recent study by the Center for Climate Integrity estimated that costs for sea walls alone in the coastal U.S. tally at least $400 billion.

“If we do nothing, coastal cities like Miami could be significantly underwater by 2045,” Sanders said Thursday when announcing his plan. 

Over the next decade, climate change would be “factored into virtually every area of federal policy, from immigration to trade to foreign policy and beyond,” according to Sanders, who said the plan would pay for itself over 15 years, mainly through structural wealth redistribution.

Climate advocacy groups applauded the plan, including the piece about directly investigating fossil fuel companies and executives. 

“All candidates should take notice of Senator Sanders’ hard line on accountability for the fossil fuel corporations, and its executives who have profited from global destruction for decades,” said Tamara O’ Laughlin, director of 350 Action, an advocacy group focused on climate change and mobilizing voters. 

The American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade organization representing the oil and gas industry, said pitting environmental goals against working families who rely on affordable American energy is a false choice.

“While some may use attacks on natural gas and oil to energize their political base, our industry will remain focused on providing the energy that powers America’s economy and modern lifestyle, while also continuing to lower carbon emissions beyond their current generational low,” said the API in a statement.

“If fossil fuel executives and lobbyists reading Sanders’ plan are scared, they should be,” Jack Shapiro, a senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace USA said in a statement

“They’ve spent millions of dollars to convince the American people that we can’t thrive without oil, gas, and coal, when the exact opposite is true. It’s time we have a president who calls out their dangerous lies, not one who repeats them.”

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