A Pennsylvania County Is Suing the Fossil Fuel Industry for Damages Linked to Climate Change

Bucks County filed the first climate accountability lawsuit in Pennsylvania, accusing oil and gas companies of carrying out “tobacco industry-style campaigns to deceive and mislead the public.”

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An aerial view of Doylestown, the county seat of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Credit: Visions of America/Joseph Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
An aerial view of Doylestown, the county seat of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Credit: Visions of America/Joseph Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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On July 15, 2023, Pennsylvania’s Bucks County recorded seven inches of rainfall in just 45 minutes. Within two hours, the county was deluged by the same amount of rainwater that it normally accumulates in the entire month of July. Seven people were killed in the flooding, including two small children who were visiting Pennsylvania from South Carolina with their family and were on their way to a barbecue. 

Two-year-old Matilda “Mattie” Sheils and her 9-month-old brother, Conrad Sheils, were “swept away” in the floodwaters, along with their mother and grandmother. “One minute it was inches deep, a minute later it was over our heads,” their grandmother, Dahlia Galindez, who survived, said later. “There was nothing we could do but go with it.” 

The children’s mother, Katheryn “Katie” Seley, perished in the flood as she tried to save them. Six days later, Mattie’s body was found about 30 miles away in the Delaware River. Her brother’s body was never recovered. 

The 2023 storm is described in a new civil lawsuit filed by Bucks County against several oil and gas companies, including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute. The suit alleges that the companies and API “misrepresented and concealed the hazards of fossil fuel products to deceive consumers and the public” for decades, inundating the market with “climate change disinformation and denialism,” which “inflated and sustained” the demand for fossil fuels, “delaying the transition to a lower-carbon future.” 

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The subsequent increase in greenhouse gas emissions “accelerated global warming, bringing devastating consequences to the County and its people.” 

The lawsuit says Bucks County and its constituents have “spent and will continue to spend substantial sums to recover from the effects of climate change,” citing severe flooding, storm surges, extreme heat, drought and saltwater intrusion as some of those effects on the suburban county, which is bounded by the Delaware River to the east and south and shares a small border with Philadelphia. In one example, the lawsuit points to flooding caused by remnants of Hurricane Ida in 2021 that resulted in at least $12.5 million worth of damage to public infrastructure in the county. 

In the lawsuit, Bucks County seeks to hold the fossil fuel companies “financially accountable” for damage caused by climate change to the environment and local infrastructure. “Bucks County residents and their families, communities, and small businesses should not have to bear the costs of climate change and destabilization alone,” the lawsuit argues. These companies “must be made to mitigate the harms they have brought upon the County.” The law firm representing the county, DiCello Levitt, will not be paid unless the lawsuit is successful.

A 2023 study concluded that Bucks County may need to spend as much as $955 million by 2040 on climate adaptation for infrastructure. The total estimated cost for Pennsylvania as a whole was more than $15 billion.

API’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Ryan Meyers responded to the lawsuit in a statement to Inside Climate News. “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,” he said. “This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of taxpayer resources. Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not a patchwork of counties and courts.”

More than 30 climate accountability lawsuits have been filed in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, the District of Columbia and in other municipalities nationwide. Bucks County’s lawsuit is the first to be filed in Pennsylvania and the first in a major energy-producing state. All of the lawsuits, the earliest of which dates to 2017, are still pending.

Like a number of other climate cases, Bucks County’s lawsuit is built on common law claims against the fossil fuel companies, similar to those found in cases against tobacco and opioid manufacturers for deceptions about their products, said Richard Wiles, the president of the Center for Climate Integrity, an organization that provides assistance to communities looking to hold oil and gas companies accountable for the impacts of climate change. 

“This is just a very standard set of common law claims that are used to hold companies accountable,” Wiles said. “The primary objective is financial remedy. In these cases, it’s to help communities pay for climate adaptation measures.”

The industry has fought for these cases to be considered in federal rather than state court for years. Federal court is generally seen by defense attorneys as a more favorable venue for their clients. 

“Between 2017 and 2023, the fight was over whether they belong in federal court or state court,” said Michael Gerrard, the founder and faculty director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. As of last year, Gerrard said, we “now know that they belong in state court.” 

In 2023, the Hawaii Supreme Court allowed a climate accountability lawsuit filed in Honolulu to move forward, despite industry objections. But the defendants have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that decision. Wiles called this move a “Hail Mary attempt to have this case thrown out.” 

“The Supreme Court might either issue a ruling that would basically block them all. Or it could make it clear that they could proceed,” Gerrard said. “It’s possible that they will decide that this is really a federal matter that individual states shouldn’t decide. Or they could decide that these cases are brought under state law and they don’t want to interfere.” 

The cases in Hawaii and Massachusetts are the furthest along, Wiles said, with the case in Massachusetts heading toward a trial. “The industry will do everything they can to push that trial day back. But I would say you could see a trial in 2026.”

“They are desperate to not ever go to trial,” Wiles said. “That’s the thing they are afraid of.” The industry fears the prospect of having to publicly defend its actions in dozens of courtrooms across the country, he said. 

In a press conference announcing the lawsuit last week, the Bucks County commissioners spoke about the need to “recoup the costs” for damage already caused by climate change and prepare for damage that may occur in the future. “In recent years Bucks County has experienced unprecedented weather events that have repeatedly put both our residents and our first responders at risk,” said Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia. She said that the lawsuit was a “tool” to help pay for necessary public works projects to combat these events in the future, like strengthening or replacing bridges, stormwater management and retrofitting county buildings. 

Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo recalled his decades of work as a farmer in the county, saying that he had never seen the kind of weather that the county was seeing now. “I’m a Republican and protecting our climate should not be a partisan issue,” he said. The lawsuit is “the right thing to do,” he said, not only for financial reasons but also to “get the attention” of the big oil and gas companies. 

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“This just makes sense,” Wiles said of the lawsuits as a strategy for tackling climate change. Even if civil litigation is not often a fast-moving remedy, it offers the potential for real results with few downsides for local governments. “There’s a very good chance to win, and there’s no risk to losing,” he said. 

Wiles compared climate accountability lawsuits to lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical companies that sell opioids. The money companies were eventually forced to pay by the courts has not equaled the true cost of the opioid crisis, but the payouts have been significant, and the lawsuits did lasting damage to the companies’ reputations in the court of public opinion.

Wiles views the current wave of climate litigation in the United States as only the beginning of what could become a multi-decade campaign that employs an array of different legal strategies against the oil and gas industry. 

“A lot of people look at it, as, OK, there’s these cases, and if they win or they lose, that’s it, but I don’t look at it that way at all,” he said. “I think the more that we know and the more that we learn from the cases, the more opportunities for litigation are going to emerge. Because there’s so much that they’ve done wrong, and so much that they need to be held accountable for.”

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