Climate Impact LA, Part 2: City Attorneys vs. Big Oil

City Attorneys Are Demanding Redress from Big Oil

In the U.S., petroleum accounts for almost half of CO2 emissions each month, mostly from cars burning gasoline on the road. This pollution devastates communities not only by raising temperatures and harming the health of residents, but also by inflicting substantial long-term costs on cities and communities. Cities already spend millions of dollars building new infrastructure like sea walls and funding projects like urban greening initiatives to mitigate climate-related damages while oil companies continue to reap profits from polluting. These costs are only expected to increase as the climate crisis worsens, while the companies most responsible for fossil fuel emissions avoid shouldering the costs.

More and more city officials are beginning to recognize these injustices and take action. Many City Attorneys in California—including those in Imperial Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Cruz—are taking oil companies to court to demand restitution. In a host of cases currently working their way through the courts, these cities insist that oil companies like BP, Chevron, and others (cumulatively responsible for 20% of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels between 1965-2015) should bear the costs of the destruction they have caused. These progressive City Attorneys are calling on the courts to require that oil companies fund abatement of climate change impacts (such as financing sea walls to counteract sea level rise) so that those costs are not inflicted on taxpayers.

Los Angeles is one of the most vulnerable cities in the world when it comes to sea level rise. The Port of Los Angeles, which brings in tens of billions of dollars to California each year, will be dramatically affected by rising oceans, and thriving coastal communities already face obliteration. Estimates show that LA will have to spend billions of dollars fortifying itself against sea level rise while many of the companies responsible face no consequences or liability. While it seems that LA is a perfect fit to join other cities in suing oil companies for compensation, no action has been taken by LA City Attorney Mike Feuer. 

As I mentioned in the last video and blog post, the City Attorney’s office has tremendous capacity to pursue environmental justice and hold polluters accountable. Feuer has taken small steps, like joining other cities in challenging President Trump’s environmental rollbacks, but he has not been ambitious or proactive on environmental justice issues. City Attorneys have the capacity and broad discretion to bring environmental claims, and LA should be on the forefront of using the office to its full potential.

With respect to oil, Feuer did take a bold step last August by filing criminal charges against executives at an oil company that has been violating environmental laws and court orders for years. While that action was important and much-needed, it was also years overdue. Moreover, the case could result in potential jail time for executives, but it will not lead to any form of restitution or compensation for the toll that the company’s reckless actions have taken on communities, especially in South LA.

Feuer’s Environmental Justice Unit has been lauded as an environmental champion due to its prosecution of cases to protect wildlife and preserve species. That work deserves praise, but the City Attorney has the power to reach much further, and environmental justice is inherently about righting wrongs committed against marginalized communities. As such, that unit should also prioritize cases that address environmental racism and the root causes of climate change.

Los Angeles cannot sit around and wait for oil corporations to fade away as renewable energy companies gain market share. The oil industry is fighting hard to prevent its own extinction, attempting to sell cities across the United States on “renewable natural gas” or expensive carbon capture technologies. We need to fight back, and we can use the legal system to our advantage. City Attorneys in other cities are getting creative and strategic, using claims similar to those that won massive settlements from big tobacco against polluters. It is time for LA to join the cause and get equally creative. 

The office of the City Attorney is not one that we typically associate with creativity, leadership, boldness, and environmental justice. That can change, and you can help.

Call to Action

Over these two videos and blog posts about City Attorneys, I hope you’ve learned something new about the powerful role they can play in addressing the climate crisis in the United States in general and Los Angeles in particular. And, if you’re like me, you’re probably feeling fired up about wanting to transform this office into a force for positive change. 

If you’re in the LA area, I have an opportunity for you to do just that. The election for our next City Attorney is coming up in early 2022, and since City Attorneys are elected officials, we as the voting public can play a role in shaping the priorities for whoever steps into that position next year. Click here to sign a petition asking for the next LA City Attorney to prioritize environmental justice in all of their work and commit to taking timely, progressive, and bold action on climate change. 

If you’re not in the LA area but want to know more about how to start a similar petition/action in your own community, send me a message via the Contact page on my website. Thank you, let’s get to work, and please share this with all of your many amazing, climate-conscious friends!

James Crisafulli
Climate Impact LA
EG Partner

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