Inside the Left's Spurious Legal Strategy To Take Down Oil and Gas Producers

January 22, 2024

Last summer, the leaders of Multnomah County—the liberal Oregon enclave that includes most of Portland—filed a high-profile lawsuit seeking $1.5 billion in damages from the world's top oil and gas producers. Exxon, Shell, BP, and others, county leaders argued in their complaint, knew that their "fossil fuel products" caused "catastrophic harm" but told the public otherwise, thus making those companies liable for a heat wave that struck the Beaver State in 2021.

The county's complaint made reference to "the world's largest oil companies" and laid out their "international operations," through which the companies produce millions of barrels of oil per day. Left-wing media coverage of the suit also emphasized the defendants' global reach: The Guardian said the suit targeted "major oil and gas companies," while Mother Jones touted the county's work to take on "Big Oil."

One defendant included in the county's complaint, however, was not mentioned in those stories. That defendant, Space Age Fuel, is not among "the world's largest oil companies." Its operations are also not "international"—they're limited to the Pacific Northwest. And unlike the other defendants named in the suit, Space Age produces no oil. The company operates a chain of Oregon gas stations and transports fuel around the state.

Multnomah County's suit nonetheless lumps Space Age together with the oil industry's global leaders, a move that attorneys say isn't truly aimed at collecting damages from the local company. Instead, those attorneys argue, Multnomah County's targeting of Space Age is a cynical move to keep the suit away from federal court—and in front of state judges who are more likely to rule against oil and gas companies.

The tactic reflects a broader emerging strategy from the left in its bid to bludgeon the conventional energy industry in favor of a green transition.

Dozens of left-wing local and state governments have sued "Big Oil" for damages in recent years, with some of those suits including at least one local defendant. Had the suits only targeted multinational companies headquartered outside the state where the alleged damages took place, the complaints would have gone to federal court. Including a local defendant, by contrast, keeps the complaints in state court, where more liberal judges are expected to view the plaintiffs more favorably.

Involved in many of those complaints is the Center for Climate Integrity, a left-wing nonprofit that helps local officials file suits "aimed at holding fossil fuel polluters accountable for the damages they have caused." The group has helped generate such litigation in cities from Honolulu to Baltimore, and a public records request—which was filed by watchdog group Government Accountability and Oversight and reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon—shows that the Center for Climate Integrity discussed litigation with Multnomah County leaders before they filed their complaint.

For Washington, D.C., attorney and former Greene County, Va., prosecutor Matthew Hardin, the county's suit is an example of the left's evolving climate litigation strategy.

"For a long time, the ploy was that they were only targeting wealthy out-of-state interests," Hardin told the Free Beacon. "That got legally risky, so now they're targeting in-state folks as well."

In the case of Multnomah County, that "ploy" means including Space Age in a suit centered on claims that do not appear to apply to the local company.

One of the county's court filings, for example, alleges that Exxon, Shell, and other defendants had early knowledge about the negative environmental effects of oil and gas thanks to research they conducted. The companies then withheld that research from the public and pushed a "well-funded, sustained public relations campaign" that portrayed oil and gas as "harmless to the environment," according to the county. As a result, the county says, the companies conspired to "deceive the public about the science connecting global climate change to fossil fuel products," thus placing them on the hook for "widespread and catastrophic" environmental harm.

But Space Age has conducted no research relating to climate change, its president, James Pliska, swore under penalty of perjury in a court declaration. The company has also "never engaged in any marketing campaign" related to climate change, "never obtained any information" about climate change, and "never released or made any public statement about the causes or science of climate change," Pliska attested. The company does, however, sell gas to everyday Oregonians.

"Space Age is a small, family-owned and operated Oregon business. I started the company with my father, Hal Pliska, in 1982," Pliska said in his declaration. "Space Age is an independent marketer and seller of fuel products."

The distinctions between Space Age and other companies included in Multnomah County's complaint, the oil companies argue, show that Space Age was improperly included in the suit and should be disregarded. If a judge agrees, the suit would permanently move to federal court. The companies filed a motion aiming to do just that in August.

While a judge is yet to rule on the request, similar climate litigation suggests it will fail. In South Carolina, for example, the city of Charleston included two state-based businesses in its 2020 lawsuit targeting Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP. The companies argued that those businesses were improperly included. A judge disagreed, tossing the case back to state court.

Multnomah County is now working to achieve the same result by arguing that Space Age as a gas station operator engaged in "collective culpable conduct" aimed at "deceptively promoting and concealing the dangers of fossil fuel use." The outcome of the case will ride on the court in which it is heard, D.C. attorney Christopher Horner told the Free Beacon.

"The venue question is fatal to their campaign," Horner said. "These cases are dead-letters in the federal courts, and the only chance they have is by keeping it in the family, so to speak."

Should Multnomah County succeed in its effort to argue its suit in state court, fellow D.C. attorney Hardin suggested the precedent could hurt everyday Americans who rely on local oil and gas retailers. Attorneys behind the climate suits can earn millions if they're successful, providing plenty of incentive to target local companies with expensive litigation.

"Will friendly fire benefit Oregonians, or just make it harder for them to get to work, feed their children, and heat their homes?" Hardin asked.

Multnomah County declined to comment. Its attorneys and the Center for Climate Integrity did not respond to requests for comment.