A diagram from a 1974 patent application by Chevron for a “mobile arctic drilling platform,” designed to withstand impacts from ice floes in areas where warming seas had melted once-solid ice sheets.
A diagram from a 1974 patent application by Chevron for a “mobile arctic drilling platform,” designed to withstand impacts from ice floes in areas where warming seas had melted once-solid ice sheets.
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In 1998, a consortium of tobacco companies agreed to pay $206 billion in damages to 45 states and six territories for misleading consumers about the dangers of tobacco use. At the crux of the lawsuits behind the settlement was the discovery that the companies knew for decades that smoking causes cancer and heart disease and that nicotine is addictive but had covered it up to protect profits.

A recent swell of state and municipal lawsuits suggests it might be possible to similarly hold oil and gas companies responsible for the ravages of climate change.

Maine has received a total of roughly $1.14 billion from the tobacco settlement, with annual payments set to end in 2025. That amount would fall far short of the projected costs of adapting to climate change, according to a study by the Center for Climate Integrity. In Maine, the report found that “the minimum down payment for short-term defense against rising seas” by the year 2040 will be almost $10.9 billion.

At climatecosts2040.org, you can enter the name of a coastal town or city for an estimate: Belfast $76.1 million, Camden $40.7 million, Rockland $43.5 million, Searsport $33.9 million.

Blue Hill recently set aside $60,000 for a vulnerability assessment. Nellie Haldane, co-chair of the town’s Sea Level Rise Task Force, said the amount was based on a similar assessment done by the town of Stonington. Multiply that by the number of towns and cities on Maine’s meandering coastline, or some number of them, and it gets to be a lot of money quickly. And the work itself is likely to cost much more.

During a virtual presentation by the Maine Conservation Alliance with representatives of the Conservation Law Foundation, Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Climate Integrity, Haldane showed photos of eroded coastline and a pair of partially submerged coastal wharves.

“This is where most of the lobstermen go out from the Blue Hill area,” she said. “At high tides and King tides and storm surges, this goes underwater, which is not very effective for a wharf.”

The image of storm-swamped coastal amenities has become familiar in many towns, where sea-level rise more frequently conspires with tidal cycles to wreak havoc, eroding bluffs, flooding coastal commercial areas and threatening wastewater treatment plants.

The scientific consensus is that sea-level rise is a symptom of global climate change. And while climate change is generally blamed on a broad range of human activities, studies have been able to link a significant share of the damage to burning fossil fuels.

The federal Climate Science Special Report of 2017 isolated the role of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions from models of how the Earth would behave without them. The study found that the 90 largest carbon producers — primarily state-owned and corporate fossil fuel companies — were responsible for 42% to 50% of the global temperature rise and 26% to 32% of global sea-level rise from 1880 to 2010. Half of the increase in ocean acidification, which affects fisheries in addition to disrupting ecosystems, was tied to large carbon producers.

Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than nearly any other seawater on the planet, has sent traditional fisheries creeping up the coastline and brought new and sometimes unwelcome warmer-water species here. The change has been a boon to Maine lobstermen, but the good fortune has come with the uneasy feeling with which a person living on a coastal rise talks about one day having beachfront property.

Megan Matthews, research and policy associate with Center for Climate Integrity, said these effects were beginning to be understood and predicted by petroleum companies as early as the 1960s. A 1980 study predicted a 5-degree temperature rise by 2067 leading to “global catastrophic effects.” Internal memos about climate change circulated at the major petroleum producers. By the late ’80s, Matthews said, they had “a deep understanding” of the perils.

Public awareness was also growing, and by 1988, action on climate change appeared to be coming. Congress was briefed on the “greenhouse effect,” which had gone from predicted to observable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was convened. George H.W. Bush on the presidential campaign trail said, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the ‘White House effect.’ As president, I intend to do something about it.”

The oil and gas companies responded, too. But instead of putting on the brakes, warning the public and leading a transition to clean energy, the industry took action to protect its investments. The industry launched public information campaigns to cast doubt on climate science while quietly preparing new technologies that would allow them to keep doing business through the coming global catastrophe. A 1989 article in the business section of The New York Times described how Shell Oil was preparing for sea-level rise by raising its offshore oil rigs 1-2 meters.

An Exxon Corp. publication asked “Global warming: who’s right?” and promised to deliver “facts about a debate that’s turned up more questions than answers.”

The disinformation campaigns have since been corroborated by leaked internal memos, including one from the American Petroleum Institute’s Global Climate Science Communications team known as the “victory memo,” with victory defined as the public coming to “understand” the uncertainties of climate science.

“It wasn’t necessary for the oil industry to convince you climate change wasn’t real for it to be successful,” Matthews said. “They just had to say enough to make you doubt it … and they were massively successful.” So successful, she said, that more than 30 years later Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett called climate change “a matter of public debate.”

Tobacco companies similarly knew the dangers of their products and suppressed the truth while leaving a trail of damning internal documents. And now some states and municipalities are using the playbook from the tobacco settlement against oil and gas companies.

Since 2017, 18 municipalities, five states (Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island), Washington, D.C., and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association have brought suits against petroleum companies.

Like cases that resulted in the tobacco settlement, Corey Riday-White, staff attorney at Center for Climate Integrity, said the recent climate change suits have been brought under existing state laws, including common-law tort (nuisance, trespass, negligence), product liability (design defect, failure to warn) and consumer protection.

The underlying theory of liability is nearly the same in all of the suits, Riday-White said: “The big oil defendants knew the harm their products would cause, they lied to us all about it, the harm they internally projected and predicted has come to bear, and now they should pay for it.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed suit against ExxonMobil in 2019 on grounds that the corporation’s failure to disclose climate change risks deceived investors and consumers. ExxonMobil is seeking to have the suit dismissed under the state’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) statute, a law that traditionally has protected individuals’ rights to protest powerful interests.

Last month, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong filed suit against ExxonMobil on grounds that the company violated the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. The state is seeking “equitable relief … for past, present and future deceptive acts and practices that will require future climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience.” In the complaint, Tong wrote, “Even if the Earth continues at its current rate of warming, the state of Connecticut would have to expend billions of dollars to adapt to the consequences of global warming.”

Riday-White said the same will be true for Maine, where a gap will soon exist between the cost of adapting and the money available in municipal and state budgets.

“At their core, these lawsuits are simply about deciding who should make up that gap — the companies that lied and deceived and hid crucial knowledge about the harm their products would cause, or the taxpayers who did none of that.”

To date, Riday-White said, the lawsuits against oil companies have followed a similar pattern: plaintiffs file their complaints in state court under state law; defendants — the petroleum interests — then remove the case from state court to federal court to convert the state law claims into federal law claims, which allows them to argue that the federal claims are displaced by the Clean Air Act. The good news, he said, is that in all but one, the federal district courts have remanded the cases back to state courts.

The number of cases has been increasing steadily since 2017.

“The wave of litigation is only growing,” Riday-White said. “There were four new cases filed last month.”