Comments By Canadian Mayor Show Climate Suits May Be Losing Steam

Canadian city appears to have second thoughts about suing Exxon

Mayor Lisa Helps / Youtube
April 8, 2019

The mayor of Victoria, British Columbia told a local radio show she's no longer convinced that launching lawsuits against energy producers like Exxon, Shell, and BP is the best use of the city's resources towards the goal of fighting climate change, suggesting localities may be reconsidering such efforts.

The Victoria City Council, representing a city just a three hour ferry ride northwest from Seattle, originally passed a motion in January in support of filing a class-action lawsuit against the world’s major oil producers to seek damages the city believes it has suffered due to climate change.

"Since we passed the original motion, I have had some second thoughts," Mayor Lisa Helps told CBC's Daybreak North. "I think there might be more prudent and more timely approaches."

"Time is running out and fighting lawsuits is probably not the best way to spend our time, when we've got a planet to save," she added later.

Her comments suggest the appetite for such efforts, which kicked off in 2017 when local governments on the coasts filed nuisance suits against top energy producers, is waning.

"It was easy enough to say yes to the climate litigation proposal when it first appeared on the agenda," said Stewart Muir, executive director of the Resource Works Society, which believes the lawsuits could create significant economic damage. "This has been the case in a lot of communities where the seemingly innocuous proposal has been passed without anyone giving it much thought. It looks like this is what happened in Victoria."

"When both the local chamber of commerce and the hotels association protested Council's decision to buy into the climate litigation campaign, it appears the mayor might have started looking more closely at the issue," he continued.

"As hoteliers and small business owners know, Victoria is utterly dependent on hydrocarbon-based fuels. The summertime cruise ship business brought 260 visits to the city's cruise terminal in 2018, and those ships burn a lot of fuel oil. The local airport is a growth story and is currently expanding its departure hall to accommodate increasing flights."

Spencer Walrath, Research Director for Energy In Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, echoed those comments.

"It's great to see Mayor Helps reconsidering her position on Victoria’s potential climate lawsuit," Walrath said. 

"It seems she’s read the tea leaves and seen that these lawsuits are going nowhere. Litigation will do nothing to reduce emissions and is nothing more than an empty gesture that delays real action on climate change. Other mayors and local leaders should follow her example and consider ways they can work with their local communities and business leaders."

Since the original activity in 2017, the federal lawsuit shared between San Francisco and Oakland has been dismissed, although the cities are currently appealing. Another lawsuit involving a set of smaller governments in California was sent back down to state court, a development that did not bode well for the plaintiffs.

After the numerous filings based in California, the zeal for similar legal action spread to East Coast governments such as Baltimore and Rhode Island in 2018. Also, in November of that year, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations also filed a civil action, becoming one of the first non-governmental entities to file similar claims.

Currently, the District of Columbia Attorney General’s office is reviewing bids from outside law firms or legal teams in support of an "investigation and potential litigation" under the government’s banner as well.

Most, if not all, of the government-initiated suits are being handled as contingency fee arrangements with third-party attorneys in which the attorneys handling the work are only paid if a judgment is awarded to the government.

Many former attorneys general, mainly Republicans, have been highly critical of these kinds of arrangements saying they invite ethical challenges, especially about broadening the scope of a state's law enforcement powers.

Published under: Canada , Climate Change