Chicago takes on oil giants in climate lawsuit

Chicago is suing five of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, accusing them of lying about their products and the dangers of climate change that contributes to flooding, extreme heat and other destructive forces that hurt the city and its residents.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court Tuesday that names BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Shell, accusing the companies of discrediting science and misleading the public as the climate crisis continued to wreak havoc on the planet.

The city is also suing the trade group American Petroleum Institute, which it accuses of conspiring with the companies to deceive consumers through disinformation campaigns even as the industry acknowledged internally that climate change was real.

“The climate change impacts that Chicago has faced and will continue to face — including more frequent and intense storms, flooding, droughts, extreme heat events and shoreline erosion — are felt throughout every part of the city and disproportionately in low-income communities,” the city said in its lawsuit.

Chicago is following the lead of New York, California and other cities and states that seek to recoup potentially billions of dollars in damages blamed on the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas, that create carbon dioxide and have led to climate change. The city has not asked for a specific amount of money.

The city is asking a court to hold the companies responsible for the costs of climate change, including damage to property and infrastructure necessary to adapt.

For instance, the city said it’s spending $188 million on climate projects in low-income communities.

The suit also accuses the companies of deceiving the public by waging campaigns to undermine scientific proof of the climate impact.

In addition to the companies, the city singles out the American Petroleum Institute, which it said since 1988 has led a number of “front groups” that include the Global Climate Coalition and Partnership for a Better Energy Future “to promote climate disinformation and advocacy from a purportedly objective source.”

These groups were organized to cast doubt on climate science and promote consumer demand for fossil fuels, the suit claims.

The lawsuit also notes that 2023 was the planet’s hottest year on record.

The fossil fuel industry “funded, conceived, planned and carried out a sustained and widespread campaign of denial and disinformation about the existence of climate change and their products’ contribution to it,” the lawsuit said.

“The fossil fuel industry should be able to pay for the damage they’ve caused,” Angela Tovar, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, said in an interview. “We have to see accountability for the climate crisis.”

An industry official said such lawsuits lack merit.

“This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of taxpayer resources,” Ryan Meyers, general counsel of the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement. “Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide — not the court system.”

“Addressing climate change requires a coordinated international policy response,” added Chevron lawyer Theodore Boutrous Jr.

Chicago is in for a long, hard fight against some of “the wealthiest companies in the world,” said Pat Parenteau, professor of law emeritus at Vermont Law and Graduate School.

“Chicago is signing up for many, many years of litigation,” Parenteau said. “Ten years is my estimate — if they get to the goal line and prove billions of dollars in damages.”

The 185-page lawsuit claims that the fossil fuel industry fought the science around climate change and its causes even as company scientists conceded a threat.

In all, the civil lawsuit alleges 11 counts of fraud, nuisance, conspiracy and negligence. The companies failed to warn about “the unreasonably dangerous conditions of the fossil fuel products and their derivatives,” the city alleges.

The suit cites marketing materials and other company-generated communications that the city alleges falsely state the companies are doing their part to fight the climate crisis.

Lawyers for the city compare the tactics used by the industry as similar to tobacco companies’ past claims that their cigarettes were less harmful. That industry was also sued by many states, and settlement money in the late ’90s went toward various uses from health-related programs to filling budget holes.

One example in the lawsuit cites a ConocoPhillips marketing claim that its gas is “better for the environment.”

The trade group and the companies “conspired to mislead” consumers about the risks fossil fuel usage presented to the world. “Widely disseminating marketing materials, refuting the scientific knowledge” and also “promoting pseudo-scientific theories of their own.”

“It’s not just that they knew, they misrepresented and withheld information for 50 years at least,” city lawyer Rebecca Hirsch told the Sun-Times.

The Chicago suit zeroes in on climate-related effects, including extreme heat, increased rain and flooding. The complaint cites the more than 700 deaths in the summer of 1995 during an excruciating four-day heat wave.

The San Francisco law firm Sher Edling and Chicago firm DiCello Levitt are representing the city.

The approach of suing the companies was applauded by at least one City Council member.

“These are huge challenges that are only getting more significant,” Ald. Matt Martin (47th) said in an interview.

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