Cities and states have been actively seeking to hold fossil fuel giants accountable for their role in knowingly contributing to global warming — a movement that is now seeing support from Democratic presidential contenders.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) have both released climate plans that would see corporations like ExxonMobil pitted against the government for contributing to climate change while concealing their internal scientific findings about the impact of emissions.
Inslee’s is particularly of note for its scope — tucked into the governor’s sweeping new climate plan released Monday is a dedicated section targeting fossil fuel companies.
As climate change becomes a hot button issue for 2020 Democratic contenders, the emerging calls for accountability could push other presidential hopefuls to similarly target major fossil fuel corporations at a time when local actors are ramping up legal efforts against Big Oil. While lawsuits seeking to assign blame for climate change have met with mixed success thus far, some environmental advocates hope that attention from presidential candidates will bolster such efforts.
Inslee told ThinkProgress that his plan would “finally hold fossil fuel corporations accountable for their pollution” and forcefully address the influence such companies have historically wielded over policymakers. Inslee also asserted that those corporations should be “liable for the harms that their climate pollution is causing” to communities nationwide.
“Like tobacco companies, these industries have poisoned our air and polluted our planet for decades without recourse,” Inslee said. “They must answer for that.”
Inslee, who has centered his entire presidential campaign around climate action, unveiled the new climate plan specifically targeting fossil fuels in advance of an appearance in the endangered Florida Everglades. The “Freedom from Fossil Fuels plan” is Inslee’s fourth major climate proposal. It calls for zeroing out more than $20 billion in subsidies from the government, among other sweeping steps. Banning new and existing fossil fuel infrastructure, imposing a “Climate Pollution Fee,” and adopting a “climate test” for any new infrastructure are also components.
And in a major step, Inslee would establish an Office of Environmental Justice under the Department of Justice (DOJ), one that would ensure “legal accountability for the climate and health damages” caused by polluters.
In 2015, documents first reported by InsideClimate News revealed that Exxon knew about the climate impacts associated with fossil fuels as early as the 1980s. Moreover, the corporation predicted in 1982 exactly how high global carbon emissions would be in 2019 — higher than ever in recorded human history.
But Exxon and other fossil fuel companies kept that science from the public, even as they continued to amass wealth through the extraction and sale of fossil fuels. Moreover, they invested heavily in campaigns to spread misinformation and promote climate science denial. That effort has often been compared to similar steps taken by the tobacco industry to bury the impacts of smoking, even when companies were well aware of the dangers to human health. Ultimately, major players in the industry were taken to court and forced to pay for that deception.
“Much like lawsuits against tobacco companies in the 1990s, these suits seek to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the accelerating harms that their corporate decisions have caused and are causing in American communities,” the plan argues.
“This plan rejects any proposal to limit fossil fuel companies’ legal liabilities for the climate damages that their pollution has caused,” it states, “and for their role in misleading investors and the public about the dangers of climate change, that their own experts warned them decades ago could be ‘severe’ or even ‘catastrophic.'”
Under Inslee’s plan, the federal government would support “states, tribes, local governments and American citizens” seeking to hold polluters accountable for climate change. The DOJ would be “empowered with the resources and discretion to support these suits” and would join them if necessary.
Inslee’s proposed Office of Environmental Justice would oversee the “aggressive pursuit of maximum civil and criminal penalties under environmental law,” with “repeat offenders” singled out in particular.
It is largely unclear whether other Democratic presidential candidates might support similar measures. Only a few major candidates — including O’Rourke and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) — have released climate-specific plans so far.
But O’Rourke’s climate proposal was notably the first to reference climate accountability from fossil fuel companies. His plan includes a pledge “to hold polluters accountable, including for their historical actions or crimes,” which could mean the government might pursue companies like Exxon. No plan thus far, however, goes as far as Inslee’s in detailing how a candidate would theoretically go after polluters.
Some experts say that’s a major oversight on the part of the contenders. Sharon Eubanks, a former DOJ attorney who prosecuted and won against the tobacco industry, told ThinkProgress that litigation plans to hold fossil fuel companies accountable have flown under the radar as a standard for 2020 candidates.
“This intentional spread of misinformation [by companies like Exxon] should be examined through a legal lens, and the federal government absolutely should look at potential lawsuits — and the candidates should be asked their positions on this,” said Eubanks, who now sits on the board of trustees for the Center for International Environmental Law.
Whether the idea gains traction with other presidential candidates or not, litigation against fossil fuel giants is in full swing. Since the 2015 revelations about Exxon, multiple cities, counties, and states have taken legal action against various fossil fuel corporations, including BP and Chevron. Attorneys general in New York, Massachusetts, and the U.S. Virgin Islands quickly launched fraud investigations into Exxon in 2015 and 2016. Both New York and Massachusetts have been locked in legal battles with the company ever since.
Cities like New York and San Francisco have moreover sought compensation for damages associated with climate change. Some of those efforts have met with failure; last year, judges dismissed climate lawsuits from several cities, arguing that Congress and the executive branch should have the final say over blame for global warming, not the courts.
But the lawsuits have continued unabated, with some success. In January, the Supreme Court declined to hear Exxon’s appeal of a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling allowing the state to proceed in its efforts investigating climate deception by the company. That posed a major setback for Exxon and the case is still pending.