The city of Hoboken, New Jersey, filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking damages from ExxonMobil and other major oil and gas companies for misleading the public about the harmful climate-related impacts such as sea level rise they knew would be caused by burning fossil fuels.
The city cast itself as a prime example of an oceanside community "at the forefront of climate change," as Mayor Ravi Bhalla said in announcing the lawsuit.
Less than five miles from midtown Manhattan in New York City, Hoboken is uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise, according to the lawsuit filed in Hudson County Superior Court. It set forth nuisance, trespass and negligence claims, as well as violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.
"As America's fifth-densest city, its residents and infrastructure are integrally connected to its 1.5 miles of coastline," the lawsuit said. "More than half of Hoboken's residents, half of its schools and all of its hospitals, rail and ferry stations, and hazardous waste sites are within five feet of its high tide line.
"Sea level rise therefore threatens major sections of Hoboken with flooding at high tide."
Global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trucks, electric utilities and other industrial processes has caused the sea level to rise by nearly a foot in and around Hoboken, which is considerably more than the average around the world, the lawsuit said, adding: "Multiple additional feet of sea level rise are projected in the coming decades as a result of fossil fuel use."
The number of high tide flood days has already more than doubled since 2000, the lawsuit said, while climate change also threatens the city with more frequent and severe flooding from storm surge during coastal storms.
Other defendants named in the lawsuit include BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas trade association.
"The climate harms masked by defendants' half-century of deception have now slammed into the shores of Hoboken," the lawsuit said.
A representative of Exxon did not respond to a request for comment.
Paul Afonso, a senior vice president & chief legal officer for API, defended the organization, saying "the record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint. Any suggestion to the contrary is false."
The lawsuit's fraud claim centers on documents showing that the fossil fuel industry has known for decades that the use of its products would result in catastrophic climate consequences. The lawsuit credits a 2015 InsideClimate News series and a later story in the Los Angeles Times for revealing the extent of Exxon's knowledge, going back to the 1970s, about the central role of fossil fuels in causing climate change.
Hoboken is the 20th municipality, state or private organization to sue the fossil fuel industry over climate change since 2017. Other plaintiffs include Baltimore, Oakland and San Francisco; numerous counties in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New York and Washington; and the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Minnesota.
In the wake of hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, Hoboken invested $500 million to build flood protection along its waterfront, including underground cisterns to store excess water and pump stations to expel storm water, the lawsuit said.
"Hoboken is at the forefront of climate change and our residents are literally paying the price," Mayor Bhalla said in announcing the lawsuit on Facebook.
"This shouldn't have to be on the backs of our residents and other government entities to shoulder the burden of these costs," Bhalla said. "We cannot stand idly by and allow big oil to continue profiteering at the expense of Hoboken residents. It's time these companies pay their fair share and be held accountable for their actions and their role in climate change."
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages associated with the destruction of city-owned property from flooding, loss of tax revenue because of depressed property values and the slowdown of economic activity in the face of the on-going threat of climate change-induced severe weather.
"The fossil fuels driving defendants' billion-dollar profits, and defendants' lies about the risks of fossil fuels, are the cause of both the escalating climate harms experienced by Hoboken and the enormous costs the city now must undertake to abate them," the lawsuit said.