Gas Guzzling DC Threatens Oil Companies

D.C. may sue oil producers despite buying million gallons of fuel in 2018

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July 28, 2019

The District of Columbia municipal government is exploring an environmentalist lawsuit against oil providers despite buying more than 1 million gallons of gasoline in 2018.

Washington Free Beacon analysis of invoices obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all wholesale purchases for city vehicles found that D.C. paid for more than 1 million gallons of fuel in 2018 alone. The city's consumption of fossil fuels did not stop lawmakers from exploring potential lawsuits against the very companies it purchased fuel from. In March 2019, the district attorney general's office put out a request for bids from outside attorneys to investigate and possibly sue major energy producers such as Exxon for reasons linked to climate change.

The bid alleges "Exxon has failed to inform consumers about the effects of its fossil fuel products on climate change." Steve Berman, one of the attorneys representing New York City in its public nuisance lawsuit against Exxon and other energy companies, was among the lawyers that received the bid. D.C. is just the latest city to go after energy companies. In 2017, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, along with other smaller governments in California, were the first to file nuisance tort claims against energy companies, asking the court to order the creation of remediation funds to pay for damages.

Since that time, the effort has moved east to government administrations in Baltimore, Rhode Island, and even inland locations such as Boulder, Colorado.

D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser is a leader in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which filed an amicus brief in support of these lawsuits. The organization passed a resolution in June asking Congress to preserve cities' ability to sue energy producers.

The question of whether governments are coming to the court with clean hands when engaging in suits such as this has arisen before. A New York City judge grilled Berman's co-counsel, Matt Pawa, over the city's fuel consumption in a hearing of the environmentalist lawsuit against Exxon.

THE COURT: Now, I know in a footnote in the defense brief, the initial defense brief, they use a number like, I think it's 27,000 vehicles plus that the City has. I don't know the exact number, but I don't think it's hard to take judicial notice of the fact that each of the City precincts in the police department has an awful lot of cars. The firehouses all have trucks. The sanitation department has trucks. I mean, aren't the plaintiffs using the product that is being the subject of the lawsuit and haven't they been using it and aren't they continuing to use it?

PAWA: To some extent, your Honor, but these [are] issues that cannot be resolved on a motion to dismiss. These are fact-intensive issues.

THE COURT: There is nothing fact intensive about the fact that if you go out the door and over to Foley Square, you're going to find police cars.

PAWA: Right. Well, your Honor, we have pled an intentional tort, and, yes, the City uses some fossil fuels.

The Manufacturers' Accountability Project opposes many of the government lawsuits against energy producers. Phil Goldberg, special counsel to the group, said that the suits are purposefully avoiding cooperative solutions.

"Mitigating climate change is a shared, national imperative and not a situation where D.C. or any community can point fingers or lay blame on the manufacturing community," he said. "We would welcome the opportunity to work with the D.C. government on energy innovations and other ideas that can actually make a difference in dealing with climate change for its residents. Targeting manufacturers with baseless and hypocritical litigation is not one of them and will only distract from real solutions."

Neither the D.C. AG's office or the mayor's office responded to request for comment.

Margaret Joel contributed to this report.