New York City Announces Plans to Sue and Divest From Big Oil

On Wednesday, January 10, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City plans to divest billion’s worth of fossil fuel investments and sue multiple major oil companies.

This so-called two-pronged attack is the latest instance of New York City taking the reigns in America’s fight against the fossil fuel industry.

Mayor de Blasio explained:

New York City is standing up for future generations by becoming the first major US city to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels. At the same time, 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 lawsuit will see New York City’s administration go up against major oil companies BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. The suit argues that these companies have been aware for many decades now that their activities directly contribute to global warming and environmental changes that have cost taxpayers billions, while threatening public health.

San Francisco and Oakland, California, have filed similar suits — indeed, it is reportedly the same legal team spearheading this latest suit — but New York City’s lawsuit comes an extra dynamic: the fact that NYC is globally recognized symbol of the United States.

The oil companies appear unimpressed with this latest move, with Exxon Mobil reportedly saying:

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. 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.

Arguably though, this kind of suit is about taking action — particularly given that NYC is looking to also divest from fossil fuel companies.

Specifically, NYC is considering withdrawing $5 billion from pension funds and other equities that are tied to fossil fuels. Estimates suggest that the city has investments in around 200 companies connected to the fossil fuel industry, so pulling those funds would have a big impact.

The New York Times reports:

Trustees for the city’s five pension funds would need to approve any divestment, weighing its effect on the funds’ performance. A resolution submitted on Wednesday to the boards of the five funds called for them to “initiate a process for determining a prudent divestment” strategy in keeping with the fiduciary duty to responsibly manage the funds. It called for the boards to hire a consultant to study the issue and its impact on risk and return.

The goal is to complete this divestment within five years, though the divestment will only occur if it remains financially responsible to do so.

Can this kind of lawsuit succeed?

We’re in uncharted waters here, so predicting the suit’s success is difficult. But ample evidence suggests that big energy companies did, in fact, know that their activities and products were contributing to climate change — and that climate change could have a disastrous impact on our world as we know it.

However, that’s a far cry from successfully arguing that NYC should be awarded damages on the basis of climate change having caused or contributed to Hurricane Sandy and other weather phenomena.

The primary obstacle appears to be proving that direct causation. But there are other legal hurdles too — for example, if NYC even has the power to sue companies in this way or whether federal law prevents that from happening.

Nevertheless, as so-called “event attribution” science develops, it is becoming easier to pinpoint whether climate change has played a major role in a particular weather phenomenon, and proving causation may become easier.

What is certain, however, is that this will not be a quick process.

Indeed, litigation may span a decade or more, but Mayor de Blasio’s action is keeping the climate change fight alive. During the Trump years, when it seems the federal government has turned its back on the environment in favor of big oil companies and other fossil fuel pursuits, that visibility and continued energy is vital. 

Photo Credit: Thomas Habr/Unsplash

69 comments

Danii P
Danii P9 hours ago

Thank you for sharing

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heather g
heather g10 hours ago

This action causes other City Councils to sit up and listen, or be left behind.

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Maria R
Maria R2 days ago

Great. Thank you.

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Maureen G
Maureen G4 days ago

All I could think about when reading this article is the money that will be made by the legal teams involved.

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Rosslyn O
Rosslyn O4 days ago

I read this on One Green Planet a couple of nights ago, and I wish them every success with this suing. I know others have tried but this is a city and perhaps the others can add their voices as well, and make it succeed.

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Winn A
Winn A5 days ago

Good news

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Winn A
Winn A5 days ago

Thanks

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara5 days ago

Good for you Mike Kelly! Keep on with that solar and I hope you do well from it.

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara5 days ago

Well done.

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Danuta W
Danuta W5 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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