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New York Sues Big Oil Companies

New York’s not a city known for being all talks and no trousers. And this week it proved it, by filing a suit in federal court against five of the world’s biggest oil companies, claiming they’ve been hiding known consequences about climate change for the public for years.

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Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was suing Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP: “We’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits. As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”

The suit argues that New York has suffered from erosion and flooding, because of climate change – and that the fossil fuel companies knew fine well what the dangers were but did not promote their own scientific findings. This is partly based on a recent Harvard study – denied by ExxonMobil – that stated the company has misled the public for more than 40 years. The company has been under investigation on this charge since 2015.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions,” said Exxon Mobil’s Scott Silvestri. “Lawsuits of this kind — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.” Chevron described the suit as “factually and legally meritless”, arguing that “it will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change.”

In an industry this big, which has so many dependants, a spirited defence is unsurprising. The National Association of Manufacturers slammed the city for becoming part of “a politically-motivated campaign to undermine manufacturing in America.” Senior VP Linda Kelly called the lawsuit a stunt: “Ironically, this attack on energy manufacturers comes at a time that New Yorkers have depended on natural gas and heating oil to carry them through the recent extreme cold. The mayor’s announcement may raise his profile, but it will do nothing to address climate change and will ultimately fail.”

Also in the mix is a plan for the city’s five pension funds to divest $5bn from fossil fuels. City Comptroller Scott Stringer said that the divestment is the largest of any in the US to date: “Safeguarding the retirement of our city’s police officers, teachers and firefighters is our top priority, and we believe that their financial future is linked to the sustainability of the planet.”

This has been happening for around five years now, with estimates of more than $5.5 trillion having been removed from investments into fossil fuels. The most significant move in this direction occurred last November in one of the world’s biggest oil-producing countries. The Norwegian Central Bank – Norges Bank – wrote to the finance minister that: “We conclude that the vulnerability of government wealth to a permanent drop in oil and gas stocks will be reduced if the fund is not invested in oil and gas stocks, and advise removing these stocks from the fund’s benchmark index.”

In 2015, Bill Gates quietly sold off its entire $187m investment in BP, though a year later called divestment a “false solution”. There are several campaigning groups directing their efforts at the Gates including The Guardian’s Keep It In The Ground, which are calling for the foundation to remove the whole $40bn fund in fossil fuels.  A 2012 report which examined stock holdings of 14 funds including those of the Gates foundation, found that they would have been $23bn better off if they had divested from fossil fuels – the Gates alone by $1.9bn. The analysis found the New York City Employee Retirement scheme would have been $1.6bn better off with divestment, as would Australia’s Future Fund.

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that people are far more likely to be motivated by money than sentiment. This latest move by New York may be the latest, but it likely won’t be the last. With near-weekly pronouncements about breakthrough green energy innovations driving down prices, fossil fuel producers are in for a tough ride. And so are the millions of people who work in this industry.