Officials from Vancouver Island and coastal B.C. communities will meet during the weekend to explore the idea of suing oil and gas companies to help offset the cost of preventing and cleaning up damage from events linked to climate change, such as flood and wildfire.
The Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities will gather in Powell River to look at a resolution put forward by the City of Victoria, which would ask the Union of B.C. Municipalities to consider litigation — a class-action lawsuit — as well as legislation meant to recover local climate-change costs from the oil and gas industry.
Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, and Powell River resident Don Fodor of Unspoiled Coast, a group that opposes the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, said they will be at the meeting to support the resolution.
“I think the question we should be debating is, ‘What is the relative fair share of the oil and gas industry, compared to individual consumers?’” Gage said.
Gage believes litigation against big oil and gas firms, and pressure from local governments for them to “pay their fair share of climate costs,” will push the firms and their investors to rethink the future of energy.
“No one’s saying they want to file a lawsuit tomorrow,” Gage said. “The resolution would ask the Union of B.C. Municipalities to look at the options around that and evaluate what could be done.”
They would also ask the provincial government to pass laws that clarify the rights of local governments to recover costs related to climate-change damage.
Taxpayers footed a $350-million bill to fight B.C. wildfires last year. In 2017, the province faced one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, when fire suppression cost more than $568 million.
In a February 2018 report, B.C.’s auditor general said the cost of climate change across Canada could reach between $21 and $43 billion annually by 2050.
The report estimated a cost of roughly $9.5 billion in B.C. to address sea level rise and seismic upgrades to dikes along the Metro Vancouver shoreline and the Fraser River shore, compared to a major Fraser River flood, which could cost between $19.3 and $22.9 billion.
Legal action against oil and gas companies would be “naive, short-sighted and doomed to fail,” said Rick Peterson, the founder of Suits and Boots, a non-profit group that boosts the resource sector in Canada.
Peterson pointed to similar climate-change lawsuits in the U.S., including one filed by New York City against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell, which was dismissed by a federal judge in July, 2018.
The judge ruled the federal Clean Air Act controls carbon dioxide emissions and blocks such a suit, according to a Bloomberg report. Lawsuits filed by Oakland and San Francisco were dismissed on similar grounds.
But Gage said those dismissals, which have since been appealed, were based on legal arguments not relevant in Canada.
He instead pointed to a Peruvian farmer’s case against German energy firm RWE over climate change damage in the Andes, which was accepted by an appeals court in Germany in 2017.
“I think Canadian law does support the idea that this type of case could be brought,” he said. “I don’t want to suggest there are no challenges, but the challenges that have been faced by U.S. communities are for the most part challenges that don’t exist (in Canada).”
But Peterson said such a class-action lawsuit here would be a self-serving “litigator’s dream” because it would be difficult to calculate any single oil and gas company’s share of responsibility for emissions at the municipal level.
“We all acknowledge climate change occurs, but it’s on a global scale,” Peterson said. “It is something that should be decided at the executive-government level, and not at a municipal or individual level.”
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said in an emailed statement it typically doesn’t comment on legal matters.
“However, we believe our Canadian industry can play an important role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by displacing less responsible sources of supply,” the association said.
“The oil and natural gas sector is a leader in environmental stewardship, is committed to reaching climate goals, and continues to improve performance through innovation by developing and using leading-edge technologies to produce energy with less impact.
“Climate change is a complex and global issue that cannot be solved through lawsuits, but should be addressed through collaborative local action by every citizen, business and city.”
— With files from Dan Fumano