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Blair Horner: New York City Takes On The Oil Industry

The fight to get public pension fund officials to pull out of investments in oil, gas, and coal companies hit a new level of intensity last week.  The City of New York announced that it was using its considerable financial clout to advance the fight over climate change by unveiling their plans to sell off $5 billion of the City’s pension investments in fossil fuel companies.  The rationale was that the companies – primarily oil – made business decisions that harmed the City – and the planet. 

Most notably, the Mayor and City Comptroller identified the economic losses incurred by significant storms that have hit New York, particularly Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of downstate.

And while the action to pull investments out of oil, gas and coal companies is an important milestone in the worldwide campaign to weaken the power of oil companies, there was more to the City’s announcement.  At last week’s news conference, New York City Mayor deBlasio also said that the City will take five oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell—to court. New York City is seeking damages that the oil giants caused by directly contributing to climate change. The City is also accusing the companies of privately being aware of the effects burning fossil fuels has on the planet for years while denying them in public.

With the lawsuit, New York joins a growing number of cities, and the Attorney General of New York, to use the court system to help bring to justice the oil industry for its decades of deceptions about the dangers of burning fossil fuels – deceptions which have contributed to the extreme weather events impacting the world. This is an important option at a time when the Trump administration and the leadership in Congress are denying climate science exists, pulling out of global accords, and backing away from enforcing existing public health and environmental regulations. 

The campaign to take the industry to court gained momentum last year after the Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria seriously damaged Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The legal challenges echo the successful campaigns of the states to take on the tobacco industry in the 1990s.  In that effort, legal challenges revealed not only the fact that the tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking caused lung cancer, it also brought to light the political, public relations and general skullduggery that the industry used to influence lawmakers and bamboozle the public. 

It wasn’t until the legal challenges were concluded, in the late 1990s, that the public was finally granted real protections from the harms caused by tobacco products – a full 25 years after the U.S. Surgeon General first sounded the alarm about the linkage between tobacco use and cancer. 

It has been well-reported that the oil industry has known since the 1970s that the burning of fossil fuels would result in global warming and changes to the planet’s climate.  It is also well-established that instead of alerting the world to those dangers, as any responsible human being would, they instead chose to launch sophisticated lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine that linkage.

Whether they did so in a way that triggers sanctions by the courts remains to be seen.  Reckless corporate behavior is not necessarily illegal.  However, the growing legal challenges underscore the importance of an independent justice system.

If it weren’t for the court system, we might all be sitting in bars that allowed smoking and young people might still be targeted by cartoon figures like Joe Camel.  You often hear complaints about litigation; that we are too litigious a society. 

America’s, and New York’s, judicial systems are not perfect, but they are the only arenas in which the average American can take on the powerful; be it the tobacco industry, the oil companies, or even the President of the United States.  It may just take actions by the nation’s legal system to avert an environmental catastrophe.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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