Big Oil should pay for climate change damage, Delaware lawsuit says

Ships and barges are idle in the middle of the Delaware River between Chester, Pa., and Wilmington, Del. (Chris Gardner/AP Photo)

Ships and barges are idle in the middle of the Delaware River between Chester, Pa., and Wilmington, Del. (Chris Gardner/AP Photo)

“We’re going after the big dogs,” Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings said Thursday as she announced a lawsuit filed by the state against 31 of the world’s largest fossil-fuel companies.

“Delawareans are already paying for the malfeasance of the world’s biggest fossil-fuel companies,” she said. “Exxon, Chevron and other mega-corporations knew exactly what kind of sacrifices the world would make to support their profits, and they deceived the public for decades.”

Jennings said the oil companies, along with the American Petroleum Institute, were dishonest about how fossil fuels contributed to climate change. The lawsuit claims that deception contributed to a rising sea level that has caused, and will continue to cause major impact in Delaware.

“One of the things that this lawsuit does is start holding those who knew accountable for their contribution here in Delaware,” said Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

“The damages will be to the health of our citizens, as we know. The rising temperatures put many vulnerable people at risk and will cause health concerns,” Jennings said.

Other damages the state will try to get the companies to pay for include loss of property along the coastline as the sea level rises, in addition to loss of farmable land due to the encroachment of salt water, more frequent drought conditions and severe storms.

Delaware has the lowest average elevation level of any state, making it particularly vulnerable to rising seas.

Other states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, have filed similar lawsuits that are still pending. New York was unsuccessful in its lawsuit, which accused Exxon Mobil of defrauding shareholders and the public by misrepresenting the impact climate change would have on the company’s earnings.

Jennings said Delaware’s suit takes a different approach than the New York case and calls the court’s decision in favor of Exxon “an outlier.”

“We chose to really directly focus on the harm done, the harm to our residents, health care costs,” she said. “We were very conscious about fashioning this lawsuit as a traditional damages action: Who were the people who caused the damages, what did they know, what actions did they take or not take, and what damages are they responsible for?”

The American Petroleum Institute denied the lawsuit’s claims.

“The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” the institute’s chief legal officer and senior vice president, Paul Afonso, said in an email to WHYY News. “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

ExxonMobil sent a similar statement.

“Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” said the company’s corporate media relations manager, Casey Norton. “The claims are baseless and without merit. We look forward to defending the company in court.”

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