Oil Company prepares to sue California Cities, Citing Hypocrisy

ExxonMobil is getting ready to bring an interesting case before a Texas state court, a case that may carry implications for municipalities and individuals looking for ways to combat climate change by setting their sights on large targets and source-point polluters.

According to Exxon’s complaints, several cities and counties in California—including San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Oakland—have filed suits against Exxon and various other energy companies over climate change. The suits were ostensibly filed to hold the energy companies accountable for destructive actions in these counties, and to curb reckless corporate behavior related to pollution and climate change. The suits may also have been filed with the ultimate goal of pressuring the energy companies to adopt policies more conductive to climate change mitigation and environmental protection.

But Exxon now argues that these lawsuits and consequent pressure suggest a hypocritical position, since the municipalities in question have made contradictory statements in their bond offerings.

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For example, these cities may have leveled accusations at Exxon based on the claim that a given municipality is vulnerable to rising sea levels or threatened by climate-change-related storms and flooding, only to exclude or downplay this fact in bond offerings to investors.

According to Exxon’s petition, despite citing the dire threat of flooding in its suit against Exxon, “San Francisco circulated bond offerings for its Municipal Transportation Agency that do not even contain the words ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’”.

Will the suit prevail in Texas court? And if so, what does this mean for future legal actions taken against corporate polluters? In effect, Exxon is not arguing in defense of its own actions; the language of the petition does not suggest distain or rejection of climate protection as a worthy goal. Rather, the company hopes to deflect responsibility, protect its reputation, and distribute accountability back to California municipalities which it refers to as “eager consumers of energy”.

In order to successfully hold energy companies accountable for destructive actions and attempts to hide these actions from the public, coastal municipalities may need to clarify their stance on climate protection and fully disclose that stance to potential investors.